American Football: Super Trial III takes shine off America's biggest night

Super Bowl suffers in shadow cast by Bryant case as trial of basketball superstar typifies obsession with celebrity in United States
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The Independent Online

As Super Bowl XXXVIII unfolded here last night glumly aware that a resolutely unignited America was probably most interested in Janet Jackson's half-time performance and the state-of-the-art special effects of the TV ads, a cynical thought was hard to suppress. It was that maybe the big game's Roman numerals might profitably be re-located in the little town of Eagle, Colorado.

There today a judge will decide on a vital defence submission in the rape case featuring basketball superstar Kobe Bryant. With one book on the infant drama already published, T-shirts on sale, a film project in train, and a great cavalcade of TV vans heading for the Rockies, what we have is surely Super Trial III.

You will no doubt remember I and II easily enough. First there was Mike Tyson's conviction in Indianapolis for the rape of Desiree Washington, a sensation which couldn't be averted even by the combined efforts of the Rev Jesse Jackson and Don King.

Next up was OJ Simpson, charged with the murder of his wife Nicole and her friend Ronald Goldman. Being in Los Angeles then was to be locked into a whole series of bizarre visions of the world's most powerful nation going off its head - at no time more so than when great crowds of beer-drinking "fans" roared, "Away to Go, OJ" as the chief suspect was driven down Santa Monica freeway trailed by a great posse of police cars.

Now, in some ways even more disturbingly, another wave of apparently unconditional public sympathy is pouring out, this time to a young man whose guilt or innocence seems a lot less important than the fame he has achieved as the free-scoring leader of the Los Angeles Lakers.

A teenaged boy, one of a huge crowd outside the Eagle Justice Center to catch sight of their hero going into a pre-trial hearing, summed up the effect of what one leading American psychologist describes as "galloping celebrity worship". "Kobe's great and I'm here to support him," said the young onlooker, "but it still sucks that he isn't doing autographs when he comes out of the court." Perhaps the superstar is a little disgruntled that McDonald's and the producers of a chocolate spread have suspended their sponsorship, which pegs his earnings back to a mere $2.5m (£1.4m). A month, that is ...

Two men have been arrested for intruding far more directly into what passes for due process. One called Bryant's 19-year-old accuser from a bar in Dubuque, Iowa, and left the message on her answer phone that he was planning to kill her. He added the words of a menacing rap number. In Los Angeles, a man from El Segundo, California, who it was thought might have links with the Russian mafia, was arrested for proposing a $3m "hit" on the girl. Bryant's security staff turned him in to the police.

Against such dramas last night's big game between New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers perhaps paled somewhat in the national consciousness. The killing complaint was that it lacked "celebrity". The psychologist who talked so worryingly about the American obsession with the famous, James Houran of Texas, added, "Fans now feel so close to celebrities; they know all the details of their lives and the separation has gone." On the build-up to Super Trial III it is clear those fans are going to get a lot closer to Kobe Bryant - and know so much more about him. He broke down in tears when he called a press conference and said, with his wife at his side, that his crime was adultery not rape.

John Turley, law professor at George Washington University, agrees that trials of the rich and famous are fraught with an ever-growing problem. "What has changed is the celebrity's ability to reach a massive fan base in whatever their circumstances." A powerful example - a young woman e-mailed support for her hero Michael Jackson, who is facing charges of child abuse, in terms that suggested the force of cult. She said, "I support Michael in my body, heart and soul. I truly believe he is innocent." Bryant has other advantages beyond worshipping fans in the Colorado courtroom, where his expensive lawyers Pamela Mackay and Hal Haddon are said to be running rings around the "outclassed, outgunned" Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert. One of the DA's worst moments so far came when he had to admit that a member of his staff had produced Bryant T-shirts with the legend, "I'm Not a Rapist - I'm just a Cheater." Mackay and Haddon, to the outrage of both anti-rape crusaders and medical experts, have pushed on to the public record the accuser's mental history, an alleged suicide attempt and a claim that Bryant was one of her three sexual partners in a brief time.

One doctor said that the defence suggestion that the young woman's mental condition might have made her promiscuous was the work of the "lowest of the low". Last week Mackay also introduced the race issue - a weapon OJ Simpson's flamboyant celebrity lawyer Johnny Cochrane used to great effect, experts said, in the acquittal of his client.

Mackay said: "My client stands accused of a very serious crime. There is lots of history of black men being falsely accused of this crime by white women." Another defence tactic is to refer, against the orders of the judge, to the accuser by her real name. The court has ordered that the name be blotted out on all documents and that verbal reference should be to a Jane Doe. When Mackay was lectured by the judge on her transgression, she said, "I must write a note to myself." He replied, "Or I put a big muzzle on you." Meanwhile with the full trial at least several months away and with jurors still to be chosen, 11 media tents are already up around the court. One of the tents will be the professional home for some time for the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Nick Ut. He won the award for his shot of a naked Vietnamese girl running in flames away from her napalmed village.

He says, "I am asked what I'm doing at a rape trial, and I say this is my new war - a different kind of war." The new war has just about everything to titillate the new public - big-time sport, celebrity, sex and more than a touch of racial conflict. It is a sure-fire ratings winner and it makes you think the TV guys are already looking ahead and dreaming of Super Trials IV and V.

Upshaw's indignation raises hard questions

gene upshaw, a former lineman of distinction, and now leader of the American gridiron players union, has reacted angrily to President Bush's State of the Union barb concerning drugs in sport. Upshaw said the president should have noted the National Football League's "strong" anti-drug policy and separated the sport from the much less stringently governed baseball and basketball.

Upshaw also noted that the National Hockey League simply refuses to impose any drug testing.

He is an outspoken character who, back in his playing days, was a prominent figure in the fight against poor wages, and at one point advocated strike action. He is America's version of our Jimmy Hill who smashed the Football League wages ceiling of £20 a week - but with muscles.

However, those with long memories and open eyes here are not always bowled over by the irresistible force of his arguments. If the NFL is so strongly policed on drugs, why do so many of its players so regularly require re-hab. And why is the average working life of most pros scarcely more than five years - something of a miracle in itself when it is considered how many of them have to play hurt, and only with the help of massive injections of pain-killers.

Some also remember Upshaw's reaction when poorly paid workers at a fast- food cafe he jointly owned went on strike and attempted to set up a picket line. Upshaw, the fighter for truth and fair play, threatened them with a baseball bat.