By offering what appeared to be a sincere apology to his accuser, Kobe Bryant has made a good start toward rebuilding his image, but the Los Angeles Lakers star has a long way to go.
And Bryant's next step, according to a Baltimore-based expert in crisis public relations, should be to make sure his actions match his words.
"I think he made a real step toward humanizing himself by the statements he made in reaction to the state dropping the charges against him," Levi Rabinowitz, president of Redzone News Management, said yesterday. "By introducing the apology into the equation, it was as though he was saying, `Look, I did something wrong. I didn't think it was wrong, but in the eyes of the other, I did something wrong.'
"Now he has to make sure that every action on the court and off the court lives up to that statement."
Even if he does exactly that, experts said, Bryant has far to go before he can shake the view that he is damaged goods - in the mind of the public and in the boardrooms of the corporations that have hired him to pitch their products in the past.
On Wednesday, a Eagle, Colo., judge dropped the sexual assault charge against Bryant after prosecutors told him that his accuser decided not to participate. Jury selection for the trial had begun Monday. He had faced up to life in prison.
In an emotional news conference on July 18, 2003, the day he was charged, Bryant admitted that he had consensual sex with the then-19-year-old employee of a Vail-area resort. With his wife, Vanessa, by his side, Bryant vehemently denied that he had forced himself on the woman.
In the written apology, which was issued Wednesday, Bryant said he wanted to "apologize directly to the young woman involved in this incident.
"I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year," the statement continued. "Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure. I also want to apologize to her parents and family members, and to my family and friends and supporters, and to the citizens of Eagle, Colo."
In the statement, Bryant also said, "Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."
Rabinowitz, who helped Maryland Public Television tell its side of the story after the firing of Louis Rukeyser and advised the attorney for Clinton impeachment figure Linda Tripp, said Bryant has done "very well" in a way that Martha Stewart did not. He showed the public that he recognized "his actions caused another person harm."
If he were advising Bryant, Rabinowitz said, the next step would be to take action that backs up the apology.
"The man makes a lot of money," Rabinowitz said of Bryant, who just signed a seven-year, $136.4 million contract with the Lakers. "Perhaps he could set up a foundation that coaches young athletes on proper conduct, character development and service to the community."
It will take a lot of those kinds of actions - a minimum of one to three years' worth, according to Ryan Schinman, president of Platinum Rye Entertainment, a New York company that hires athletes to represent corporations - until Bryant can even think about approaching the level of endorsements he had just last year.
Before the charge, Bryant had an endorsement portfolio that included some of the biggest corporations in the world: McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Nike, even Ferrero, the Italian-based makers of hazelnut spread Nutella.
In June, Forbes.com said Bryant was the 10th-highest-paid athlete from June 2003 to June 2004. He made $26.1 million, half of which came from endorsements, according to the list.
Bryant's deal with Nutella expired in August 2003 and was not renewed; the same thing happened when his three-year contract with McDonald's was up at the end of 2003.
And even though his deals with Nike and Coca-Cola's Sprite remain in force, he hasn't appeared in either company's advertising since the incident.
"The bottom line is his image is tarnished as the schoolboy next door," Schinman said.
"He's still an admitted adulterer. And although adultery is not a crime, it's not exactly the family value and family ethics that corporate America is looking for in a spokesperson."
Schinman, who estimated that the charge could cost Bryant more than $100 million over the rest of his career, agreed with Rabinowitz that the best way for the star to rebuild his image would be to be a "do-gooder in the community."
Oh, and one more thing - lead the Lakers to the NBA title.
"People always love winners," Schinman said. "It's a lot easier to forgive winners. You go out there and win another championship for the Lakers and do some positive things in the community, people will find it easier to forgive and forget."