Legal analyst sees 'an end to ... a sad situation'

Updated: March 1, 2005, 11:57 PM ET
Associated Press

DENVER -- Is a settlement the best way for Kobe Bryant to get past the rape allegation that has dogged him for nearly three years?

The NBA star and his 20-year-old accuser have reached an agreement in principle, ABC News reported Tuesday, with a settlement possible as early as this week. Attorneys for Bryant did not return calls and the woman's attorneys, John Clune and L. Lin Wood, both declined comment.

The woman's attorneys scheduled a seven-hour questioning session with Bryant on Friday but it was scratched, prompting speculation a settlement was close. Experts say they believe the two parties are eager to avoid a trial that would bring out intimate, embarrassing details on both sides.

"Some people will view a settlement as at least a partial admission" of guilt, said Larry Pozner, a Denver attorney who handles both civil and criminal cases. "But the more realistic view settlement as what it is: You buy something and you sell something.

"What you buy is an end to litigation, an end to courtrooms, an end to meetings with lawyers, and what you give back is money, and what Kobe Bryant has a lot of is money."

Bryant's accuser filed her lawsuit in Denver federal court last August, three weeks before the criminal case against the Los Angeles Lakers star collapsed when the woman decided she could not participate in the trial.

Allegations in the lawsuit echoed those of the criminal case. The woman said Bryant flirted with her during a tour of the Vail-area resort where she worked in June 2003. After the two ended up in his room, they began to kiss and Bryant became more aggressive, finally holding her by the throat while he raped her from behind, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for mental injuries, humiliation and public scorn the woman said she suffered since the encounter. Bryant, a married father of one, issued an apology to the woman but maintained the sex was consensual.

Bryant, 27, has to bring an end to the civil case in some way if he hopes to regain a semblance of the rising-star image that brought him lucrative product endorsements before he was charged with felony sexual assault, said David Carter, a sports marketing consultant with the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group.

"There's going to be some real short-term pain attached, but absent this, he'll never be able to move on to any kind of marketing career," Carter said. "Without this closure, without putting it behind him, he's left twisting in the marketing wind."

Bryant's agent, Rob Pelinka, did not return a call Tuesday.

Besides a seven-year, $136 million contract Bryant signed with the Lakers last year, he has a five-year, $45 million deal with Nike signed days before the allegations surfaced, though he has not appeared in the shoe maker's commercials since then. His contract with Coca-Cola, the maker of Sprite, expires this year.

McDonald's and Nutella decided not to renew their deals with Bryant after his arrest. Bob Williams of Burns Sports and Celebrities Inc., a sports marketing agency, has estimated Bryant lost some $4 million to $6 million in endorsement contracts.

Still, in June ranked Bryant as the 10th highest-paid celebrity in 2004, earning $26.1 million from June 2003 to June 2004 in salaries, bonuses, prize money, appearance fees and endorsements.

Denver attorney Bill Keating, who has worked in civil cases for more than 30 years, said a settlement always seemed the only logical end for the high-profile case.

"I think the defendant certainly recognizes, and probably most of the people who are familiar with the case -- the reading public -- recognize this is a case likely to be very time-consuming, very expensive and a case that delves into intensely personal issues on both sides," he said. "It's really the perfect case to be settled because there are lots of areas of compensation other than money that come along with getting the case settled: not having to be involved in this public issue any more."

U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch has said he hoped the trial could begin this summer.

Pozner, a past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said it was never in Bryant's best interest to go to trial.

"Let's assume that a year from now a civil jury had found that Kobe Bryant was not liable," Pozner said. "That verdict would not give him back the year of distraction, the year of legal fees, the year of answering questions. This is I think a business decision made for business reasons; it's not, I think, about the case.

"It's an end to a sad affair, a sad situation."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press