It's difficult to make direct comparisons. Defining an "athlete," for example, is problematic, and police and courts vary from county to county.
But early research shows that, once a complaint is made, pro or college athletes are more likely than the general population to be charged with a crime of violence against women - and more likely to be acquitted.
According to Justice Department statistics, 32 percent of rapes reported to police in 1990 resulted in an arrest. More than half of these suspects, 54 percent, were convicted.
For athletes, the numbers are almost reversed. Of the 217 felony rape complaints to police involving athletes between 1986 and 1995, 172 resulted in an arrest, a rate of 79 percent. But of those 172 arrests, only 53 - 31 percent - resulted in convictions. (In 43 cases, the athlete pleaded guilty to a reduced charge or entered a plea of no contest. Only 10 were convicted.)
Partly this is because many prosecutors are reluctant to try cases against athletes. Interviews with the prosecutors who opted not to press charges revealed that in many cases they believed the accuser and often had corroborating evidence to support her claim. But they felt the cases could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
The difference in the results for athletes and non-athletes indicates something is working to the advantage of the athletes over their accusers.
The athlete's social environment provides him with both protection and support. Accused athletes have money, powerful lawyers, PR specialists, famous coaches and other personalities to come to their defense.
Rarely do accused athletes deny sexual contact with their accusers; more often they say it was consensual. Unlike most accused rapists, an accused athlete typically asserts his claims at a press conference, as Kobe Bryant did, putting his accuser on the defensive and touching off pretrial press coverage where the accuser is vilified as an opportunist seeking fame or money by filing a false complaint.
Common sense (as well as research) defies these arguments. Rape is a humiliating and violent crime; rape victims do not want publicity. And criminal courts don't award victims money.
IN ADDITION, the people in the athlete's support network are valuable even before charges are filed. Their prominence and influence often leads authorities to resolve cases without a trial.
It is impossible to know, of course, how many arrests are never made because they involve a prominent athlete. But statistics from college campuses indicate the number is significant.
According to a 1995 analysis of judicial records supplied by 10 of the nation's largest universities and colleges, male student-athletes make up 3.3 percent of the male student population, yet account for 19 percent of the reported perpetrators of sexual assault on college campuses. Unlike criminal complaints resolved in court, these cases were adjudicated away from the public eye by campus boards.
Bryant appeared in court Wednesday to be advised of the charges against him and of his rights under the law. The law treated him no differently than any other suspect: innocent until proven guilty. This is as it should be.
But we should also realize that American culture, with its idolization of the rich and famous, will afford him more protection than the rest of us. *
Jeff Benedict, a lawyer, is author of "Public Heroes, Private Felons: Athletes and Crimes Against Women." This first appeared in the New York Times.