The Kobe Bryant trial ended before it ever began yesterday with a final act so stunning that few could have imagined it. On the brink of trial, Bryant's accuser refused to testify. Bryant then apologized to her, saying, "I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter." That admission may open the path to a potentially large civil settlement for her. And the small town prosecutor, burned by his collapsed case, made clear on national TV that he still considered Bryant guilty.

Cynics will have a field day. Whatever machinations produced this final dismissal, the net effect will probably be a multimillion dollar payoff by Bryant that avoids a trial with all its legal uncertainties and public embarrassments. As the prosecution's case has unraveled recently, the prospect of a Bryant apology and subsequent civil settlement may have become a feasible compromise for the accuser who has been through hell, including three arrests of men who made death threats.

"With the victim onboard, we thought we had a great case," District Attorney Mark Hurlbert said. The case was not dropped out of "lack of faith in the victim," whom he described as "credible and brave." Instead, Hurlbert characterized her as not merely a victim of Bryant's but of "worldwide scrutiny" that was ultimately unbearable. "Justice is sadly interrupted," Hulbert said.

Then, in the criminal case's unexpected denouement, Bryant issued perhaps the most contrite public statement ever issued by a famous athlete who had been convicted of nothing and had not even been forced to stand trial. Bryant's admission that "I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did" appears to leave the way clear for his accuser to collect damages. "I issued this statement today fully aware that while one part of this case ends today, another remains," Bryant said. "I understand that the civil case against me will go forward."

In the wake of his adultery, which he admitted on national TV with his wife beside him, Bryant bought his spouse a $4 million piece of diamond jewelry as a forgiveness gesture. After the brutally self-damaging candor in his statement, it seems likely that the price Bryant will ultimately pay his accuser may be of comparable magnitude. The annual budget of Eagle County, Colo., where this national spectacle-fiasco-drama has played out for the past 14 months, has an annual budget of $2 million. Whatever you choose to call yesterday's interlocking developments, which certainly felt like the result of negotiation and necessity more than pure pursuit of justice, the final price of Bryant's behavior may take an interesting bite out of his new $136 million contract.

The multifaceted ugliness of the entire affair is breathtaking. Even Bryant, with his vast wealth, said that yesterday's developments mean the case will no longer be a financial drain on the citizens of the state of Colorado. Is Kobe planning to give back all the money that Eagle County spent to prosecute him? If he feels bad for her, why not for them, too? For that matter, is Bryant planning to apologize to Lakers fans for running off Phil Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal? One of the NBA's great franchises is now in ruins. Kobe gets to rule the rubble. When it comes to imploding an almost perfect public image, Bryant has set records this year.

"I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year," Bryant said in a statement that will no doubt be parsed for sincerity, legal nuance and signs of genuine remorse for a very long time.

"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. . . . Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual . . . 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."

It is hard to fathom the emotional response of countless women who have been in what they firmly believe was a comparable position to Bryant's "consensual" partner. How many have had the courage to come forward? How many have suffered some smaller version of the charges that Bryant's astronomically paid legal team mounted against her character, behavior and mental stability? And how many have the prospect of millions of dollars as some partial indemnification? How on earth can such a fundamental sense of violation -- which Bryant now admits he believes that he (mistakenly) inflicted -- be valued in dollars?

Bryant's statement may drip with conciliation now. But in a series of court documents released to the public, Bryant's attorneys described his accuser as sexually voracious, mentally unstable and addicted to drugs. If Bryant's reputation is damaged, if his ability to function as a commercial pitchman has been decimated (as we assume that it now has been), what can be said of the victim's reputation now that her name has escaped into the public domain?

While this day brought some kind of resolution, though bitter no doubt, to all sides in this case, there were losers. For a nation of increasingly vicarious voyeurs, this Cancel the Kobe Case day was no doubt quite a loss. An almost audible groan of disappointment swept across the reality-TV demographic of America at the news that a trial, which had the potential to break all records for salacious tawdriness and too-much-information about semen stains and vaginal bruising, had been canceled. In one stroke, the Lakers star can stop worrying about spending four years to life in prison. And the rest of us have, in a sense, been given back approximately a year of our current-event lives. We've been reprieved, too. Kobe has been given back his freedom, though certainly not his polished good name.

Many of the rest of us feel that we have been granted a stay, too. Perhaps now we can be spared endless additional details. Enough is already far, far too much. Be satisfied with the shabby cash-greased compromise that we appear to have gotten. Kobe has his liberty. Eagle County gets to sneer, "Guilty, guilty, guilty" as he leaves town. The "victim" will probably get paid -- a lot. As for justice? Don't be picky. Don't ask too much.