Last week a Los Angeles County judge revoked the $1 million dollar bail that was tied to the release of Darren Sharper while he awaits trial on a slew of felony charges. The charges against Sharper include two counts of rape by use of drugs, four counts of furnishing a controlled substance (morphine and zolpidem/Ambien) and one count of possession of a controlled substance. The revocation is a direct result of Sharper’s most recent criminal indictment. A grand jury in Arizona recently retuned an indictment on two counts of sexual assault and three counts of administering a dangerous drug, stemming from accusations of two women claiming they were offered drinks laced with sedatives and then raped by Sharper. Sharper, a former NFL Pro-Bowler and former on-air analyst for the NFL Network is currently under investigation for rape and other sexual assault charges in five states including California, Arizona, Louisiana, Nevada and Florida.
The most troubling aspect of the allegations levied against Sharper is the consistent pattern that many of the alleged attacks follow. The victims in cases based in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Miami Beach, and Arizona all contend they were out partying with Sharper, invited back to his hotel room, then served a shot of a mysterious concoction resulting in them blacking out and waking up naked or in the midst of a sexual assault. Sharper asserts that all of the sex was consensual and even points to a previous sexual relationship with some of the victims.
As uncomfortable as it may feel, particularly under these alleged facts, in America every criminal defendant is afforded a legal presumption of innocence, including Darren Sharper. But as we consider the public perception of Sharper we must examine the many professional athletes that precede him in this dark space of criminal suspicion, particularly suspicion of one of our most egregious crimes, rape. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this far too many times in the world of professional athletics to list every athlete suspected or convicted of being a sexual predator. Therefore, three of Sharper’s most prominent predecessors are reduced to Kobe Bryant, Mike Tyson and Ben Roethlisberger.
Each of the three aforementioned cases were treated differently by both the law and media. Common perception would suggest these athletes have an easier time “getting off” because they have more money and thus access to better lawyers. Make no mistake about it; money is a strong influence in the navigation of our justice system. But it’s not as simple as it seems. Several factors contribute to the distinctive treatment of these cases, including the nature of the charges, the sport the player comes from and the personal background of each athlete.
In Bryant’s 2003 sexual assault case he was accused of forcing himself on a 19-year-old Colorado woman who was working as a hotel employee. Bryant claimed that the sex was consensual. He admitted to cheating on his wife and therefore committed a moral but not criminal wrongdoing. While the media expressed extreme disappointment in Bryant’s moral slip, there was still a strong contingent that supported him and felt he was being unfairly targeting by the alleged victim. Ultimately, the criminal charges were dropped when the young lady refused to testify. An out of court civil settlement was reached and after a few years, Byrant resumed his position as one of the most beloved athletes in the world. Much of that public forgiveness was rooted in the goodwill Bryant had built during his 7 previous years in the NBA. He was clean cut, disciplined and a seemingly happily married father of a beautiful young baby girl. Adultery aside, people didn’t want to believe their golden boy capable of something so horrendous and his presumption of innocence rang loud and clear.
Bryant’s relatively happy ending wasn’t enjoyed by former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson or NFL Super Bowl-winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Tyson was eventually convicted of the 1991 rape of an 18-year-old beauty queen. He served three years of a six-year prison sentence. He used the same defense offered by Bryant: sex occurred but it was consensual. The difference was in the Tyson case, the victim was willing to testify against him in open court and Tyson already had a history of alleged abuse against his ex-wife Robin Givens. Unfortunately for him, that made his public presumption of innocence far less effective. Although Roethlisberger was never criminally charged, he did face a civil lawsuit for a 2009 sexual assault of a Lake Tahoe woman. Similar to Bryant, Roethlisberger settled the civil case for an undisclosed amount. Due to a lack of evidence, there were no criminal charges filed in a separate sexual assault claim by a Georgia college student against Roethlisberger. Tyson and Roethlisberger both returned to their respective sports, but not without the looming cloud of negativity and suspicion. Tyson was convicted in a court of law so it’s no wonder that he would be haunted by his actions for eternity. Roethlisberger was never convicted of anything and like Bryant, he settled a sexual assault claim out of court. But unlike Bryant, Roethlisberger didn’t enjoy the immense good will or media fanfare that comes with a solid family life or clean cut off the playing field image. Instead, Roethlisberger was a known party boy who frequented local bars, was rumored to skip out on his bill, and wear t-shirts that read “ Drink Like A Champion.”
While all of these men are given the same legal presumption of innocence, their cases are not evaluated by the courts of law or public opinion in a vacuum. The totality of the circumstances is considered when deciding their prospective guilt or innocence. These circumstances can include family life, the aggression associated with their sport, and previous patterns of behavior. In the case of Darren Sharper we will see how the courts and public perceptions treat his totality. “There are safeguards in place to limit the prejudicial effect of how the different rape/sexual assault charges will affect one another in the legal system. However, the public will remain aware of this string of allegations that mirror each other in theme and modus operandi: the party scene, the luring back to the hotel room and the persuasive shot of drug-laced liquor. All the money in world will not protect Sharper from a zealous prosecution, and if the evidence holds up on cross-examination, I foresee Darren Sharper spending a long time in prison for these alleged horrific and predatory actions.