AND THE WINNER in the Kobe Bryant case is, well, hmm, figuring this out could take some time.
Bryant certainly isn't a winner, even though the rape charge against him was dropped and he is free to play basketball, earn millions, buy more diamond rings for his wife or do whatever he wants.
The drawn-out court case badly tarnished his image, which will never be the same. His dirty personal laundry was aired for all the world to see. No one is going to trust that smile again.
His alleged victim isn't a winner, either. She was the subject of death threats and relentless scrutiny. Her decision to drop the case indicates a heavy toll exacted.
Taking on a sports star in a criminal court, where they seldom lose, was obviously a horrific experience for her. Given a chance to start all over again, she would surely choose not to proceed.
And she is unlikely to win the civil case still pending.
Mark Hurlbert, the district attorney in Eagle, Colo., also isn't a winner. He reportedly spent more than $200,000 in local tax dollars while boldly insisting he could take the case to court and win. He talked a huge game and failed to back it up.
Meanwhile, some legal experts have suggested he never had much of a case and was foolish to proceed.
Good luck in the next election, big guy.
While we're at it, let's include the public among the non-winning parties, as this tawdry affair will now disappear without a satisfactory resolution. At the very least, we deserved an ending after 14 months of grimy speculation. But only Bryant and his accuser will know what really happened.
There aren't many potential winners left if Bryant, his accuser, the district attorney and the public are ineligible. But a couple of candidates do stand out.
Bryant's defense lawyers, for instance. They shot so many holes in the prosecution's argument as the case trudged along that it became apparent even to untrained legal eyes that this thing was a blowout.
It was over once the judge was persuaded to allow evidence about the accuser's sexual history, a groundbreaking precedent.
Bryant's lawyers are coming out of this with their reputations soaring.
Another winner, unmistakably, is the team Bryant plays for, the Los Angeles Lakers. They just signed him to a seven-year, $136.4 million contract.
Imagine if they'd had to send those checks to Bryant in prison.
But the fact that they signed him to such a deal in July, some 13 months into the case, was an indicator of how the case would turn out. The Lakers either were fools willing to gamble that kind of money on a jury trial (they're not) or convinced Bryant wouldn't miss a game.
"I just have trouble believing [the case] won't turn out well," Lakers owner Jerry Buss said at the time. "I don't have a contingency plan. I never thought I needed one."
Why would he? Athletes caught misbehaving, or allegedly misbehaving, are famous for getting their way in court. Bryant is just the latest example.
Former basketball star Jayson Williams recently faced up to 55 years in prison after being accused of shooting his limo driver. He was found guilty of lesser charges and is free today, pending a retrial.
Football star Mark Chmura was accused of forcing his baby sitter to have sex in a bathroom. Baseball Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett was accused of fondling a woman's breasts in a men's room. Both were found not guilty.
The Ravens' Ray Lewis settled for a misdemeanor obstruction charge after being up for double murder.
O.J. Simpson was acquitted.
Only poor, lamentable Mike Tyson, charged with rape and convicted, was foolish enough to end up doing time.
The trend can be generally explained. Our society is notorious for coddling its sport stars. Those stars have the money to pay the top lawyers who can get them off. And juries are composed of normal people, who tend to get star-struck in the presence of athletes.
It all bodes well for the Ravens' Jamal Lewis, indicted on drug conspiracy charges and scheduled to go to trial Nov. 1 in Atlanta. (Although keep in mind that Lewis is facing federal charges, unlike the others. The feds are more formidable.)
But even though stars tend to beat raps or finagle verdicts to keep them on the playing field, they still lose in their own way. Ray Lewis has managed to turn his public image around, but few succeed to such a degree.
Bryant may have avoided jail, but he is no winner as he emerges from the muck of this case, mud splattered on his name.