Kobe Bryant (search) began the next phase of his criminal case last week as analysts renewed the question that has been on their minds since a 19-year-old woman accused the NBA superstar of rape: If he's guilty, will a jury convict him?

Bryant didn't enter a plea when he appeared before District Judge Terry Ruckriegle on Thursday but he has maintained he did not force himself upon the woman, who worked at a mountain resort where the Los Angeles Lakers (search) guard was a guest on June 30.

The rape allegation put Bryant in infamous company: male athletes accused of sexually assaulting women. And some experts wonder if he will join others in that group by avoiding a conviction as they point to available data suggesting that a double standard has resulted in lower conviction rates among athletes for sexual assault compared to the general population.

"There are a few factors here and one of them is entitlement -- these athletes have never been told no," said Katherine Redmond, who sued and won a settlement from the University of Nebraska in 1997 after she claimed a star football player on campus raped her. He was never criminally charged.

Redmond now runs the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes (search), and has assisted the victims in 250 sexual assault cases since 1998.

She and other critics contend that the problem of sexual violence perpetuated by athletes will only get worse as long as school administrations, athletic departments and professional ball clubs continue to coddle and protect athletes as early as high school.

"There are no consequences for what they do," Redmond charged.

Just how prevalent the problem is of sexual assaults committed by athletes is difficult to determine because research into the matter has been slim.

In 1995, investigative journalist Jeff Benedict and University of Massachusetts sports management professor Todd Crosset produced a report that suggested a disparity in conviction rates between athletes and non-athletes charged with sex crimes.

They found that while there was a conviction rate of 80 percent for those charged with sexual assault in the general population, the conviction rate among professional and college athletes was 38 percent.

And studying crime reports from 107 colleges and universities over a three-year period, Benedict and Crosset found that one in three reported sex assaults on college campuses were purportedly committed by athletes. Another finding was that while male student athletes comprised 3.3 percent of the student population, they accounted for being the accused perpetrator in 19 percent of sexual assault reports.

Benedict extended his research to a 1997 book, "Public Heroes, Private Felons: Athletes and Crimes Against Women," in which he extends the theme that a victim is at a distinct disadvantage against the protection, support and resources that a prominent athlete wages against a prosecution.

But not everyone believes these statistics are definitive, noting the small number of schools involved, and warn against emphasizing athletics when the real issue ought to be the increase of violence on all levels in society.

"It's an ongoing debate," said Jackson Katz, an author of several books and papers on male sexual abuse against women and the founder of the Mentors in Violence Program (MVP) at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University.

"I don't think anyone can speak definitively one way or another because of the lack of systematic research," he said. Experts like Katz say that there is very little "definitive" data linking sexual assault and athletes, and even less providing evidence that professional athletes are more likely to commit violent crimes against women but less likely to be convicted than the rest of the population.

However, Katz said, "Even if they were not statistically more likely to commit these crimes, the fact is that many male athletes have been charged with sex crimes and domestic violence against women in the last few decades, and I think that affects the culture at large."

Jeff O'Brien, director of MVP, which offers gender violence training to teachers, students and coaches at both the high school and collegiate levels, said much of the focus on athlete crime is "a lot of fire chasing."

He said these cases grab the headlines because the suspects are famous.

While he said he wouldn't disagree with complaints that many of these famous athletes have been given a free pass because of their celebrity and value to their sport, "anyone in athletics knows that's not always the case," said O'Brien. "What worries me is when people look at it always at the extremes."

But Redmond says this is typical spin from on-campus research centers.

"Everything can be tied to money," she said. "A lot of these small college towns, their economies depend on the sports of these universities and they are reluctant to do anything. They are reluctant to take their star player off the team."

After these student athletes graduate or leave school, professional ball clubs recruit these players despite their reputations, said Caryl Rivers, a professor of journalism at Boston University.

Look, for example, at Redmond's case. Besides Redmond's accusation against Christian Peter, he was charged with two other unrelated sexual assaults while on campus, including one for which he served an 18-month sentence of probation. He continued to play football during that time.

The New England Patriots drafted Peter out of college, then complained they didn't know about the legal troubles relating to the sex charges, and immediately dumped him. But the New York Giants picked him up right away in 1996, and now he plays for the Chicago Bears.

"They [players] come in very young, they become very valuable very quickly, so the teams set out to protect their investment, but in the wrong way," said Rivers. And often, she added, the wrong message is made to athletes early on in their scholastic careers, setting the stage for bad behavior once they hit the big leagues.

"They don't give men the message that the way they behave toward women can destroy their careers," Rivers said of the coaches and support staff, even school administrators who are often quick to come to athletes' defense.

John Heisler, director of sports information at Notre Dame, said his department is far from lax when it comes to communicating this message with its athletes and giving them guidance about better decision-making.

"I don't think there is an athletic department anywhere that's burying its head in the sand in this day and age," he said. "That's something we make all of our student athletes aware of."

Notre Dame is just one school that has had its share of bad headlines regarding player assaults on women. As recently as September, a jury awarded a woman $1 million in civil damages after she claimed she was raped in 2001 by a former Notre Dame football player who was not brought up on criminal charges.

In an unrelated case, one man has been acquitted, two are awaiting trial and another was convicted of sexual battery and conspiracy to commit rape in a case where a woman claimed she was gang raped by four Notre Dame football players in 2002.

In other schools that have had similar problems:

-- In Oklahoma, one woman awaits the outcome of a lawsuit against not only the four Oklahoma State University players she said gang raped her at a party in 2001, but also against the school and a local police detective. The victim said the detective coerced her into signing a waiver of prosecution, hours after the alleged incident took place. The players were never criminally charged.

-- In Missouri, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is investigating the University of Missouri athletics department on charges that it inappropriately gave academic help and gifts to basketball player Ricky Clemons, who was convicted in April on charges that he choked and falsely imprisoned his girlfriend. The school did not revoke his scholarship until he violated the conditions of his probation in July and had to spend 60 days in jail.

The NCAA does not have rules governing sex crimes; it leaves that up to the schools, said spokeswoman Kay Hawes. Regardless, it sees violence among athletes as enough of a problem to fund several mentoring programs to try and combat it.

"We believe it is a valid, legitimate concern, and this is why the NCAA has devoted resources to it," Hawes said.

However, she would not comment on studies that emphasize athlete conviction rates. "I don't know that we've analyzed the studies that show conviction rates -- we've analyzed studies that show the magnitude of the problem of violence, not what happens when it's over, that's been our focus."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.