Duke case fields same tough issues as Bryant's

April 17, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Kobe Bryant is back in the news this week, mostly because of what he has done on the court, with the NBA playoffs approaching and the votes for Most Valuable Player due this week.

But his re-emergence coincides with widespread reminders of why he became a topic of national discussion off the court.

Bryant was the central figure in a big sports celebrity sexual assault case not that unlike the one currently careening out of control at Duke, one that reportedly could go before a grand jury today. Bryant's case riveted and polarized America two years ago in almost the exact same way the Duke lacrosse case has now.

Oddly, that logical comparison to the Bryant case hasn't played out on television, in the papers or in the other usual media outlets. Still, don't think that the Kobe connection hasn't been made quickly and openly everywhere else the Duke case is discussed, whether on Internet message boards and in chat rooms (type "Duke lacrosse Bryant" into your favorite search engine and see) or in less digital settings - barber shops, grocery stores, bus stops and the like.

Those in the midst of such discussions might not have insight into the search warrants, criminal records or campus housing policies the way the reporters in Durham do. But they see the relevant issues connecting the two situations as clear as day.

Fame. Prominent athletes. Privilege. Money. Race. As many observers have already pointed out, it's a perfect storm, a near-complete collection of lightning-rod subjects. It is that way at Duke now. And it was in Eagle, Colo., from summer 2003, when Bryant's name first surfaced as a suspect, until nearly fall 2004 when he and his accuser settled out of court before a trial could happen.

In some examples (mainly race), the roles have been switched. In others, the roles are tweaked (Bryant's celebrity all over the country and especially in Los Angeles, compared with the Duke players' status on campus and within their sport). That has made for some interesting agreements and disagreements among those in the debate and notable changing of sides and positions in the years spanning Eagle and Durham.

It also has sparked the usual shouts that this isn't about race - which, of course, reinforces the fact that it's at least a little bit about race. The same shouts went out two years ago. It was as insulting and cowardly an approach to a serious topic then as it is now. But that's a subject for another day.

But for the sake of argument, let's say that neither the Bryant case nor the Duke lacrosse case was, or is, about race, and let's also say that public perception is a factor (a very safe assumption). What aspect of this is going to leave the strongest impression now, and what left the most indelible mark in Colorado?

Privilege and money.

Bryant, with the huge contract and what was left of his massive endorsement income, could hire a high-powered defense team, and did. He also was provided a private plane by the Lakers to attend his hearings - and, as few who witnessed it will ever forget, to return in time to play, even in playoff games.

These are assets the average rape suspect doesn't have.

It will forever be difficult, if not impossible, to erase the perception that justice was bought. Remember, there was also the suspicion that Bryant considered buying it outright at the time he was being questioned - that was when he infamously told police that he figured then-teammate Shaquille O'Neal had bought his way out of such situations before.

The implication, either way: Bryant paid to get himself out of that jam because he could.

And so can the people supporting the Duke players.

As far as anyone can tell, the alleged victim there has not been able to hire a public relations consultant with presidential ties to bolster her image. Nor has she been able to benefit in legal assistance or public support from a group of powerful, loaded alumni from her school, a North Carolina Central answer to the Committee for Fairness to Duke Families.

Her family is entitled to fairness, too, but apparently she can't afford the kind of fairness Duke families can.

They're getting their money's worth, too. By now, it has almost been forgotten that the DNA tests that either have exonerated the players or not - but which still threw the case into the national arena - were ordered in the first place largely because two weeks after the alleged attack, the players had steadfastly and collectively refused to cooperate with investigators.

Again, that's a ploy the average suspect wouldn't dare try to pull off. Not even Bryant tried that.

It's another easy comparison between this attention-grabbing sexual assault case and the former one. As long as the Duke situation stays at the forefront, so will Kobe Bryant's.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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