The decision by Colorado prosecutors to drop felony sexual assault charges against Kobe Bryant yesterday opens the door for the Los Angeles Lakers superstar to return to the NBA next season and, according to public relations experts and people in and around the league, could help repair the damage done to his image and reputation.
Many basketball observers said they believed the Lakers guard, who signed a seven-year, $136 million contract with Los Angeles in July, would pick up where he left off on the court last spring, when he turned in a series of stunning playoff performances despite the looming trial. But repairing his lucrative off-the-court business ventures that were damaged by the charges against him will require considerably more effort, public relations officials said.
"He has to let some time go, do some other things. Obviously he has to stay out of trouble," said Mike Sitrick, a Los Angeles-based public relations executive known for his crisis management for Rush Limbaugh, Halle Berry, Paula Poundstone and others. "One of the things he has to do is take a page out of Bill and Hillary [Clinton]'s book, and if he does do an interview, he has to do it with his wife [Vanessa] at his side. She has to say, 'I've forgiven him and so should the American public. This is between Kobe and I. We've gotten beyond it.' "
NBA Commissioner David Stern was unavailable to comment last night. Reaction elsewhere around the league was varied.
"The case tarnished Kobe but I don't feel it tarnished anything else," said Mark Bartelstein, the agent for Lakers forward Brian Grant and former Laker and Bryant friend Derek Fisher. "The way it affected the league was that it generated a lot of headlines. Everybody criticized [Dallas Mavericks owner] Mark Cuban for saying that the trial would get the league a lot of press, but it was true. A lot of the interest was for the wrong reasons, but more stories were written about it than anything else in the league this year."
"Hopefully he can take it as a learning experience," said Theo Ratliff, a forward with the Portland Trail Blazers. "He can move on. Nobody wanted to see this situation happen the way it happened."
Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas said that many NBA players supported Bryant and were confident of his innocence. "None of us doubted that this would happen. We all knew it," said Arenas, who grew up in Los Angeles. "Just the way our lives are, we can all be in that situation."
Sports sponsorship consultants said it's too early to know whether the Bryant marketing magic will return because he admitted publicly last year that he had committed adultery by having what he said was consensual sex with his accuser in a Colorado hotel 14 months ago. Bryant had faced life in prison and a $750,000 fine, if convicted.
Bryant, who still faces a federal civil lawsuit filed by the accuser that seeks unspecified damages, issued a statement yesterday apologizing to the alleged victim "for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year."
Marketers said Bryant's future as a corporate spokesman will largely depend on whether the public sides with him or with the alleged victim.
"It's going to take time, if he can recover at all," said Jeff Chown, managing director of The Marketing Arm, a sports consultant to Fortune 500 companies. "He's going to have to do a lot for the public to respond because he has publicly admitted to adultery and that offends a great number of people in the country, and other people still question what actually went on."
"A recovery will be a function of just how strong or weak the accuser appears to be," said David M. Carter, a principal at the Sport Business Group consulting firm in Los Angeles. "If this was a trumped-up charge, he may be able to make it back in a matter of years. If not, it's going to be a long time, if ever, when he will be able to pitch mainstream consumer products."
Before the then-19-year-old woman accused him of rape, Bryant was one of the NBA's most prolific marketers, pushing everything from Sprite to Big Macs to Nike athletic shoes. McDonald's and Nutella decided not to renew his endorsement contracts last year.
Clean-cut and well-spoken, Bryant has a big, boyish smile that radiated accessibility. He is multilingual and arrived in Los Angeles in 1996 at age 17 amid great expectations after an acclaimed career at Lower Merion High School outside Philadelphia.
"Here was a guy who had such a pure resume, an all-American in terms of how he was viewed," Bartelstein said.
Bob Williams of Chicago-based Burns Sports and Celebrities Inc., estimated that Bryant has lost $4 million to $6 million in endorsement contracts. He retains a five-year, $45 million contract with Nike signed days before the allegations surfaced, though he hasn't appeared in the shoe maker's commercials since then. His contract with Coca-Cola, maker of Sprite, runs through next year.
"Advertisers would still want to make sure the whole situation is played out before they would want to associate themselves with Bryant again," Williams said. The prosecution's request that the charges against Bryant be dropped was all the talk of the radio airwaves in Los Angeles late yesterday. Caller reaction was mixed as Lakers fans breathed a sigh of relief that Bryant would not have to spend another season racing from court hearings to the arena. But others were outraged, saying that Bryant's fame and deep pockets may have allowed Bryant to sidestep the criminal charges against him.
"I figured this case was never going to make it to trial," said one caller from Colorado Springs.
"The case was weak. It never should have been brought up," said another caller from East Los Angeles. "It just wasted taxpayer money and that's a no-no."
Special correspondent Kimberly Edds in Los Angeles contributed to this report.