OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

It won't only be Kobe Bryant in court on 9 October, when prosecutors in Eagle, Colorado are to outline their evidence against the Los Angeles Lakers basketball star at a preliminary hearing in his sexual assault case. Under scrutiny alongside Bryant will be the venerable marketing tactic of hiring athletes to endorse mostly prosaic parity products.

The astonishing ballyhoo already surrounding Bryant - which began last month, when a 19-year-old hotel worker accused him of raping her - is invoking comparisons to OJ Simpson. Feeding the hyperbole is the disparity with the charismatic Bryant's squeaky-clean image, second to virtually no other pro 'baller, and so starkly different from the rowdy, almost thuggish personas cultivated by so many other players.

Phrases such as "loving husband" and "doting father" appeared in article after article about the young (24) standout, who attracted endorsements from a blue-chip list of major advertisers, led by Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Nike. Bryant "was what risk-adverse marketers crave", The New York Times sports section wrote, "a spectacular, Jordanesque ballplayer who did not get into trouble".

But as the colourful New York mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, once said: "When I make a mistake, it's a beaut." After being arrested and charged, Bryant conceded that he'd been unfaithful to his wife, though steadfastly maintained he'd committed no crime.

How high are the stakes for Bryant and Madison Avenue? In an annual survey of the most prolific US sports endorsers, Burns Sports & Celebrities, which matches jocks and the advertisers that adore them, ranked Bryant No. 3 last year, behind only Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. A guilty verdict could cost Bryant as much as $150 million in potential peddler's income, Burns estimated, based on his recent haul each year of $11 million to $13 million from the aforementioned big marketers along with Spalding sporting goods, Upper Deck trading cards and Ferraro, which plastered his face on labels of jars of Nutella sold in America - plus the slogan: "Try Kobe's favourite."

That the phrase takes on a new double meaning, thanks to the smutty details of the case in the media and on the internet, is one unpleasant side effect of l'affaire Bryant. As a result, some marketers once firmly in Kobe's corner are beginning to back away.

Ferraro, for one, says it decided earlier this year not to renew his contract, and is starting to remove his pictures from the labels and promotional materials. (That prompted one wag, Michael Ventre of MSNBC.com, to point out "the obvious lesson here" that "if you intend to serve as a spokesperson for a hazelnut and chocolate treat, you'd better have street cred".)

Still, Bryant should consider himself lucky that so far no marketer has treated him the way Nestle treated another Laker pitchstar, Magic Johnson, when Johnson disclosed being HIV-positive in 1991. Nestle immediately yanked Johnson from ads for its popular Crunch bar, never to return, though he remains alive to this day.

Also still alive is the concept of throwing huge sums of money at athletes to be endorsers, despite few if any compelling rational reasons to keep doing so. Perhaps the Bryant brouhaha will signal a welcome beginning of the end. Heck, if McDonald's wanted an adulterer in its ads, the marketing department at least could've signed up Bill Clinton. Everyone knows that unlike some rent-a-jocks, he's a devoted customer.