Athletes susceptible to sexual allegations
In July 2003, pro basketball player Kobe Bryant holds the hand of his wife, Vanessa, during a news conference after he was charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman. The Los Angeles Lakers' superstar was acquitted of criminal charges and reached an out-of-court settlement in the civil case.
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Allegations of sexual misconduct by athletes are a mixed bag, ranging from criminal convictions (Mike Tyson) to criminal acquittals with civil suit settlements (Kobe Bryant) to outright fabrications (Jerome Bettis).
Because they are high-profile performers, lightning rods who face temptations and risks when they interact with the public, athletes often are subjects of such allegations.
"There are some things you can avoid just by not putting yourself in certain situations," said Ralph Cindrich, a former pro football player and agent from Mt. Lebanon who has represented dozens of players. "Unless a guy is going to be a monk, he's going to go out and get involved with women. You never know what might happen."
In many cases, including the recent allegations against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, incidents involve athletes on the road in hotels. That was the case with former Pittsburgh Penguins forward Dan Quinn, who was arrested but never charged in a November 1992 rape investigation in Minnesota; boxer Mike Tyson, who was convicted of rape in Indianapolis in February 1992; and Kobe Bryant, who was acquitted of sexual assault in a July 2003 incident.
"Any time you are going to a golf event and you're with a bunch of guys in a hotel, you're open to something like this," said Mr. Cindrich, noting he had a client at an NFL Alumni event last weekend. "The same [type of allegation] could have happened in that situation, too."
Other high-profile cases that resulted in criminal acquittals include former Green Bay Packers tight end Mark Churma in February 2001 and the late Minnesota Twins outfielder Kirby Puckett in April 2003.
In Mr. Bettis' case, a woman in August 2002 accused him of assaulting her outside a Westmoreland County bar. A police investigation determined they had consensual sex but the woman and a relative had concocted a scheme to extort money from Mr. Bettis, the Steelers' star running back at the time.
A December 2003 study by USA TODAY showed the difficulty in winning a criminal sexual misconduct case against an athlete. The newspaper found that in allegations involving 164 athletes during the previous 12 years, 22 cases went to trial and six resulted in convictions. Another 46 cases resulted in a guilty plea to a reduced charge.
Mr. Cindrich said the National Football League does "a pretty good job" preparing athletes for their high-profile lifestyle. Every year, rookies go through a three-day course to teach them what types of situations and people to avoid and NFL security regularly visits each team with reminders of inappropriate and risky behavior.
The situation that resulted in allegations against Mr. Roethlisberger, filed in a civil complaint with no criminal charge or investigation, are difficult to defend because no one else was directly involved, Mr. Cindrich said.
"This is a situation that is far more difficult that a bar fight or carrying a weapon," he said. "It's an allegation that really only involves two people. Who else really knows?
"With high-profile celebrities and athletes, they have to be far more cautious, a lot more careful than other people."
First Published July 22, 2009 12:00 am