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Allegations probably won't impact Big Ben's reputation

| Friday, July 24, 2009

Mark Hurlbert immediately noticed something peculiar when he learned about the sexual assault allegations a Lake Tahoe hotel employee has raised against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

"It surprised me that there was no criminal filing, no police reports," said Hurlbert, the Colorado district attorney who prosecuted Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant in 2003 for allegedly raping an Eagle County hotel employee.

Like other legal experts contacted by the Tribune-Review, Hurlbert said the lack of a criminal investigation figures to be a key component in the courtroom and the court of public opinion.

"It certainly raises a red flag when there is no call out to the police — that however late or early it is, the first time you hear about it is in a civil suit," said Hurlbert.

A successful criminal prosecution often makes it easier to win a civil verdict because the burden of proof in a criminal case is much more difficult, experts said.

Hurlbert dropped the highly publicized prosecution of Bryant when the accuser declined to further participate. The woman later filed a civil suit against Bryant, which was settled out of court for an undetermined amount of money.

Roethlisberger, 27, who vehemently denied the allegations against him Thursday, emphasized the word "civil" when saying he wouldn't discuss his private life or the case in the media.

There's little to indicate that Roethlisberger's reputation or marketability will be damaged based on the accusations alone.

"When all is said and done, a claim like this without any criminal charge really doesn't amount to much," said John Meindl, president and CEO of New York-based SportsBrandedMedia, a sports marketing company. "It's the image of someone walking into a police station in handcuffs that has a lasting effect on people's minds. The charges against him are only civil charges, so that doesn't apply here."

Even Bryant has rebounded in the court of public opinion. He recently appeared in a commercial for the "Guitar Hero World Tour" video game, was on the cover of the "NBA '07" video game, partnered with Vitaminwater and became the face of Nike's Hyperdunk sneaker.

According to Sports Illustrated's Fortunate 50 list, which ranks the top-earning athletes in the U.S., Roethlisberger was No. 15 in 2008 with $2.5 million in endorsements and $22.7 million in salary and bonus money for a total of $25.2 million.

Meindl doesn't believe companies will quickly abandon Roethlisberger, as Kellogg's did when images emerged of pot-smoking Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps.

"In Ben's case, the fact that news came out so quickly in his favor, I don't really see it to be damaging (to his reputation) in the long run," Meindl said.

Roethlisberger's 31-year-old accuser is seeking $380,000 in special damages plus unspecified punitive damages. The Tribune-Review doesn't identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

Downtown attorney Bob Del Greco, a veteran criminal defense attorney, said the lack of police involvement is troubling.

"I dare say that if you look at national cases of this nature, I bet you won't find one that starts off with a civil complaint with such a time delay alleging a crime that was never reported," Del Greco said. "Assuming this occurred and she was violated and outraged, the presumption is you bring it to the attention of the police."

Del Greco represented former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis in 2002, when a woman accused Bettis of assaulting her in his car outside a Greensburg bar. An investigation determined that the woman's uncle had a clear plan to extort money from Bettis.

Del Greco said that even though Bettis was innocent, the running back still was worried what people might think of him.

"There were journalists who cried out that he should have been arrested immediately, that he's getting superstar treatment, that pro athletes do this all the time, and if it weren't for lawyers like me, they'd be in jail where they belong," Del Greco said. "What's wrong with investigating the matter• She made it up; it was a contrived hoax to extract money from a celebrity. People do crazy and illegal things for money."

Alison Hall, associate director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape, declined to speak specifically on the allegations against Roethlisberger. In general terms, she said, sexual assault is far more common than people think.

"A lot of times, it is he said, she said, and the only people who know what happened are the people in the situation," Hall said. "That doesn't mean that victims shouldn't come forward."

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