The Buzzer Sounds

Kobe Bryant, LA Lakers Basketball Player, Justice, Gavel, Rape CBS/AP

Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.



The settlement in the Kobe Bryant sex assault case is the least surprising legal development of the year. No one who has followed the case, and surely not the principals involved, ever believed that either side would want to go to trial in front of stern U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch, to air, quite literally, their dirty laundry.

This settlement was born on the day the criminal rape case against Bryant was dropped; at the moment the young basketball star publicly apologized to his accuser. The interim period between then and now merely had to play itself out, like a kabuki dance, with each side going through the motions of menacing each other in and out of court. This is what happens in civil cases, when only money and reputations are at stake, and life and liberty are not on the line. Cooler heads prevail.

The immediate catalyst for the deal was Bryant's scheduled pre-trial deposition, which was supposed to take place last Friday but which was mysteriously postponed at the last minute. As soon as the deposition was scheduled, as soon as a date for it was fixed, this settlement was a cinch; as sure a thing as Jack Nicholson sitting courtside at the Staples Center. Bryant's attorneys and handlers never were going to permit him to face questions, under oath, about any other "relationships" or "encounters" or "hookups" or whatever he may have had with any other young women while traveling on the road for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Naturally, I have no idea whether Bryant engaged in any such dalliances. During the criminal trial, there were strong hints, from media reports and otherwise, that perhaps there were other women who might have been able to talk about a pattern of behavior on the part of Bryant that might have been relevant in that case. Now we will never know. But what we do know is that Camp Kobe understood that the star's already tattered reputation would get even shakier were he to be deposed in the civil case.

That's because no one believes that Bryant's testimony, whatever it would have been, would have remained private and sealed and closed to public scrutiny for long. In the Michael Jackson case, grand jury transcripts that never should have seen the light of day were posted on the Internet long before the King of Pop's trial. Does anyone believe it would have been different with Bryant's deposition transcript? I bet we would have seen details emerge within days or even hours of the end of Bryant's testimony. And I'm sure that Bryant's attorneys would not have taken that bet.

If anything, there would have been more pressure, and more incentive, to leak portions of the Bryant transcript than there was to leak the Jackson grand jury material. Virtually everyone knew before the transcripts were posted what the Jackson case was about; virtually no one knows what Bryant would have said when asked about other hotel stays, in other towns, at other times. And once that information was released publicly, once it was leaked the way it seems always to be leaked these days, the damage to Bryant's reputation would have been cemented into place no matter how the civil case turned out.

Indeed, even a verdict for Bryant at trial would have been Pyrrhic. It never was a zero-sum game anyway when it came to the reputations of these two litigants. Trashing his accuser in court would not have restored Bryant's own reputation. It would not have made his fans and sponsors forget about this sorry episode and anything remotely relevant to it. Tearing her down would not have raised him up. In this respect, the battle of images and the need for image-making, Bryant and his accuser never were on a level playing field and they both knew it. It was an imbalance that helped Bryant during the criminal trial but ultimately hurt him in the civil case.

The plaintiff and her attorney surely understood all this, which is why they pushed so hard for the deposition and why they won a major (and completely expected) victory in the case when Judge Matsch allowed them to question Bryant about parts of his past that did not come out during the prelude to his criminal trial. And Bryant and his attorneys surely understood it as well; understood that once the deposition unfolded and the details came out there would be no turning back; no way to put back into place a serene face on this case or his past.

So the deposition became the pressure point or, as a former law firm mentor of mine used to put it, the "Come to Jesus" moment. Although no one has filled me in with all the details, I'd be willing to bet a can of corn that on the eve of the deposition Bryant finally was able to put a price on the rest of his life as he knows it; was finally willing to pay the surely steep price he has paid for those few moments of passion, or whatever it was, in that hotel room near Eagle in 2003. Settlements in civil cases always come on the eve of things; the eve of trial, the eve of deliberations, the eve of important testimony. This result fits neatly into that eternal pattern.

For both Bryant and the alleged victim in the case, the deal makes perfect sense. They both can get on with their lives. He can try to rebuild his relationship at home, restore his team to greatness, and reclaim his reputation in the marketplace. She can give birth to a child (not Bryant's, of course) and to try to build a new life with her new husband, a young man she apparently met while in rehab just after her encounter with Bryant. If he believes he paid too much, and if she believes she got too little, they both are wrong. It was time for them to get past this awful chapter and accomplish something better for the future. No amount of money would have been worth the emotional carnage a trial would have generated.

Sometimes this story reminded me of a soap opera. Sometimes it reminded me of high school. Sometimes it reminded me of a Greek tragedy. Sometimes it reminded me of the Marx Brothers. And sometimes it made me think of two sleek ships crashing into each other in the deep of night in the middle of the ocean, each coming away from the collision scarred and damaged for the rest of their days. The deal is done. Neither side won; both sides lost. And now it's over for everyone except the two poor souls who started it all.

By Andrew Cohen
  • Lloyd Vries

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