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Armour: Sports World Too Often Sends Wrong Message with Fawning Treatment of Stars

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Kobe Bryant. Photo: By Christopher Johnson via Wikimedia Commons

Blind adoration is a dangerous thing.

There’s no better reminder of that than this week, as Kobe Bryant was feted and fawned over and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was hustled out a back door. Different as their circumstances might seem, they actually are two sides of the same coin, predators whose riches and athletic success made them believe they were untouchable.

If we’ve learned anything in the reckoning of the #MeToo movement, it’s that the messages we send and the passes we give have consequences. And the sports world has let them be destructive for too long.

Oh, there are exceptions. Geno Auriemma, who won his 1,000th game Tuesday night, has created a culture at UConn where it’s expected that women will be extraordinary.

Instead of being warned off big dreams, the women who play at UConn chase them boldly and unapologetically. There are no allowances or slack cut for “being a girl,” and that simple standard of equality sets a powerful tone.

But there aren’t enough UConns and Auriemmas, and too many like Bryant and Richardson.

Imagine being an assault victim and watching the Los Angeles Lakers retire Bryant’s jersey in a Monday night ceremony that seemed more like a coronation. Yes, Bryant was one of the greatest to ever play the game, a five-time NBA champion who follows only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone on the career scoring list.

He also was accused, in graphic detail, of rape in 2003, and eventually acknowledged some culpability.

“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did,” Bryant said in a statement read by his attorney after charges were dropped when the accuser stopped cooperating.

“After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”

That’s a stunning admission, and he later settled a civil lawsuit. Yet Bryant’s reputation remained intact. In 2004, while the case was still pending, the Lakers gave him a seven-year, $136 million contract. He continued to get lucrative endorsements from Nike, Panini and Hublot.

And despite exhaustive talk about his legacy in recent days, there was little if any mention about the rape case. It’s as if it never happened, his transcendence on the court enough to absolve his worst misdeed off of it.

Richardson has an alleged pattern of sexual harassment and racism that goes back decades, according to Sports Illustrated report Sunday. The details are as gross as they are shocking, mostly because it appears his behavior was common knowledge among his employees.

Yet less than two years ago, the Panthers put up a statue of Richardson outside the stadium. It’s a sculpture that would be the envy of any autocrat, the 13-foot-tall Richardson flanked by two roaring Panthers.

“The Indomitable Spirits who guard our stadium were led here by a man who took us beyond where others even imagined,” the inscription on the statue reads. “In this place, for this place – his relentless drive inspired a display of unity in the Carolinas worthy of a world’s stage.”

It’s true that Richardson said within hours of the SI report that he would sell the team, followed by his announcement Monday that he would step away from the Panthers immediately.

But his fall from grace will be softened by a golden parachute likely somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion. Whatever public humiliation he’s feeling now will be eased by his profit from selling the team.

Messages matter. Too often, the sports world sends the wrong ones.

By Nancy Armour

This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

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