No sooner had a 17-year-old Columbia teen-ager accused basketball star David Wingate of rape last fall than people lashed out at the victim.
"Man, she's lying," said a guy I play basketball with.
My mouth dropped open.
"Why would she lie about a thing like that?"
"It's a setup," he said. "These women, they see a chance to make some easy money off of a superstar, and right away they drag him into court."
"But . . ."
"You wait," he said angrily, "watch her settle out of court for some big bucks."
The alleged attack occurred last September. The teen-ager, a high school senior, claimed she had gotten drunk on tequila and beer during an afternoon party at Wingate's apartment. Drunk and ill, she said, she had collapsed in a bedroom when Wingate forced himself on her.
Wingate, 27, countered that they had had sex by mutual consent.
In late September, a Howard County grand jury indicted him on charges of second-degree rape, assault and battery and unauthorized sexual contact. He faced up to 20 years in prison if convicted and the possible end of his National Basketball Association career.
A lot of people apparently thought the whole thing was funny. All last fall and all through the winter, I heard joke after joke about the incident.
Some of the humor was directed at Wingate, of course.
But the really vicious stuff was reserved for the high school student.
Then, there were all the news features in which Wingate's former coaches and teammates described him as a fine, hard-working young man who was just coming into his own in the NBA.
Wingate, himself, complained that the charges (a San Antonio, Texas, woman also accused him of rape) tainted his reputation.
"I can't change what people think," he said in one interview. "As long as I have the truth, I'm not bothered."
But, because news organizations try not to identify alleged rape victims for the victims' own protection, we learned very little about her. And since we knew nothing about her, people were free to draw their own conclusions.
In January, a stranger stopped me on the street. This was shortly after Wingate's team, the San Antonio Spurs, announced that the young forward would not be allowed to play until after his trial.
"It's a doggone shame," said the man, gripping me by the arm.
"What do you mean?"
"It's a doggone shame that they let that, that, piece of trash threaten to ruin that young man's career like that."
"But . . ."
"Even if Wingate did do something, it's still her fault," the man continued, and he too seemed very, very angry. "She had no business even being up there."
How widespread, how vocal, were the jokes, the anger, the contempt? It is impossible to say. I heard it though. Maybe the alleged victim heard it, too.
All things considered then, it came as no surprise that the alleged rape victim announced during a pretrial hearing a few weeks ago that she wanted to drop the charges.
She repeated her allegation that Wingate had raped her, but she said she no longer wanted to face the pain and humiliation of a trial.
Her father took the stand later and said he did not want his daughter to "go through the ridicule. It isn't worth it. I do not wish to see my child suffer."
So, last week, the Howard County state's attorney placed the case on the inactive docket. If Wingate does not get into trouble for a year, the charges will be dropped. A few days ago, the Spurs resigned him to a multiyear contract. A team spokesman said he could rejoin the team and play by the end of this week.
For Wingate, I suppose this story has a happy ending. If he is innocent, justice has been done. He can pick up his life where it left off.
But there remains that big "if." The victim never recanted her story, and the case never went to trial.
Regardless of all of the "ifs" about the case, one thing is crystal clear: that those who cynically question the victim's motives are rapists of a different sort.
All of you people lashed out at the alleged victim even though you do not know her and can have no idea of what happened; all of you people felt this inexplicable rage toward a young woman whose only "crime" was to allege that a sports hero attacked her.