Kobe Bryant, according to heavyweight sociologist Mike Tyson, is a victim of circumstance.  “It could happen to anybody,” Tyson explained.  The ex-champ referred not to filing for bankruptcy, going Muslim, or biting off a piece of an opponent’s ear, but to getting charged with rape—something apparently as random and undiscriminating as getting struck by lightning. 

Bryant seems the opposite of Tyson, whose lifelong barbarism makes me wonder why he was not caged long before his three-year rap.  At 17, Bryant was the NBA’s boy wonder.  At 24, he remains a great player who, at least until the late unpleasantness, projected a clean-cut image (he was a husband and father to boot) that made him a top draft choice for product endorsements.  So, when he was charged in July with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old white concierge at an upscale Colorado hotel, media outlets, former NBA stars, and fans were shocked . . . shocked . . . shocked!

Or were they really?

Based on the media’s mixed messages, it is hard to tell.  On the one hand, some say the charge is baseless because any woman accusing an athlete of rape is probably a scam artist.  Even before Bryant was charged, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly preemptively dismissed it: “A lot of people out there are looking to get something out of famous, rich people. . . . [M]alicious prosecution is certainly in this case, in any high-profile case, something that’s looming in the background.”  Furthermore, as sports agent Drew Rosenhaus told Mr. O’Reilly, it is unthinkable that Bryant would engage in consensual sex, let alone rape, because “He had nothing to gain by getting involved with this conduct.”  (Mr. Bryant later admitted to consensual sex.)  On the other hand, as ex-NBA star Charles Barkley told CNN’s Larry King, NBA players who take it where they can get it ought not be subjected to media circuses because—in his apples-to-basketballs analogy—former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani slept around and the late Katharine Hepburn was a floozy, too.  

Besides, who can blame these poor millionaires blessed with physical prowess for having alley-cat inhibitions?  Major athletes are “the hot toy at Christmas,” former Tyson attorney Daryl Soll told Fox.  “Everybody wants to take them home.  Only they get to choose who takes them home.  And sometimes they make poor life decisions.” 

As inevitable as such “poor life decisions” may be, however, the dirty details must not be allowed to destroy young fans’ delusions about their Christmas-toy-quality heroes.  A Florida attorney already has petitioned the judge in the Bryant case to ban courtroom cameras.  John Thompson, worried that his basketball-loving son might see sexually-explicit material on television during the Bryant case, argues that “This court cannot and must not ignore . . . the rights and wishes of millions of parents . . . to raise their children free of the intruding details of rape that we now can expect to see on ESPN . . . ” 

If protecting the young were Mr. Thompson’s concern, he would be lobbying television networks to keep the smut out of programming altogether.  This is not a matter of principle, however: TV smut is OK, as long as it does not involve these latter-day gladiator heroes/role models/corporate tools, whom fans may simultaneously praise as awesome sources of entertainment while disregarding them as otherwise worthless.  Apparently, Americans and their children have the right to watch predatory athletes on the court or field without having to hear about their Neanderthal lives after the game is over.

Such athletes don’t just turn into cavemen after achieving success, however.  Many of them already are susceptible to behavior that lends itself to rape charges, hailing from an urban ghetto culture that glorifies the immediate gratification of personal desires, be they sexual, violent, or even gastronomical.  The possible outcomes—pregnancy, murder, obesity—are secondary concerns, if considered at all.  The culture of professional sport accepts and encourages this “Just Do It” sort of behavior.  Elizabeth Kay, the author of Ain’t No Tomorrow, a book about the Lakers dynasty, said the motto of the NBA players is “Play ball, get laid, sleep in.”

The NBA is long overdue for a full-court ethical press, but other professional sports—and athletes who hail from beyond the ghetto—are blameworthy, too.  Consider bodybuilding.  In a 1977 interview with a pornographic magazine, Arnold Schwarzenegger described a culture of guilt-free sexual predation in which he enthusiastically participated.  (“Gang bangs” were kosher if consensual.)  “Having chicks around is the kind of thing that breaks up the intense training,” he said.  “It gives you relief, and then afterward you go back to the serious stuff.”

Kobe Bryant may have thought so, too.