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[Vegas on My Mind]

Presumed guilty? (Unpopular) thoughts on Bill Cosby’s canceled Vegas show

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No laughing matter: Bill Cosby, a Strip regular for decades, won’t be performing at TI this weekend after all.
Sun file photo

It seemed for just a moment as if sanity and fairness might triumph. For a few days last week, it appeared that Las Vegas was going to resist the urge to pile on, to sacrifice itself on the altar of political correctness, to convict a person without a trial or even a single legal charge filed against him.

And then, of course, Bill Cosby’s show at Treasure Island was canceled by “mutual agreement,” just days after TI spokeswoman Michelle Knoll said, “Our position is, yes, he’s performing.” This after Cosby performed successfully in the Bahamas and in Melbourne, Florida, late last week. (A rep for TI did not respond to a request for further comment by press time.)

Please don’t misunderstand. The many accusations against Cosby of sexual assaults against women, incidents that could span decades, are very alarming. They accumulate at a dizzying pace, a fact that could easily support either Cosby’s contention that opportunists are exploiting his celebrity or the accusers’ assertions that there is a defined, irrefutable pattern. As with everything else related to both fame and rape in our society, it’s fairly easy for well-meaning people to imagine this going either way.

I still prefer the innocent-until-proven-guilty model, especially when we’re dealing with someone this culturally and racially significant. There are people in public life who transcend normal consideration—and both enjoy and endure what that brings. It’s not a popular view and, I have no doubt, many will assert that it’s insensitive to women.

But when did Phil Ruffin, the billionaire owner who corralled his longtime pal into an exclusive deal that no doubt encouraged other stars of that caliber to appear at the TI, decide he couldn’t weather this storm despite their friendship? Yes, sometimes a media feeding frenzy turns someone so toxic it becomes hazardous to a business or other people’s reputations to remain intertwined. I don’t begrudge NBC, for instance, pulling the plug on a potential sitcom barely in the planning stages. Companies that could lose money by keeping Cosby on as a pitchman must respond to the marketplace, however cruel and unforgiving it can be.

But what exactly would Ruffin risk by holding a show by a man who hasn’t been charged with a crime? Norm Clarke, the Review-Journal celebrity columnist, predicted on Channel 13 before the cancellation announcement that the show wouldn’t go on, because “somebody is going to see the opportunity to be a heckler or several hecklers. That’s the kind of thing you don’t want.”

I find that hard to believe. A 77-year-old legend and the TI’s security team—not to mention the rest of the paying audience still wishing to be entertained by Cosby—can’t handle some heckling? Cosby has, his whole life, handled far less predictable heckling with grace and aplomb. Podcaster Jake Iannarino of the Hardcore Travelcast told in May 2012 about a heckling incident at a Cosby show at the TI he attended: “Mr. Cosby did not seem to get rattled at all. … The audience starts fighting back. ‘Shut up! Shut up, lady! I paid $86 for this ticket, you bitch.’ And Cosby says, ‘It’s okay, everybody. Let her yell. Quiet down.’ … Handled it like a champion. This is Bill Cosby, the founding father of modern stand-up comedy.”

That he is, and as such he deserves just a little more benefit of the doubt than he’s receiving, especially around these parts. Cosby, a presence on the Strip for more than 50 years, recorded his best-comedy Grammy winner, Why Is There Air?, at the Flamingo in 1966. In 1987, at the height of his TV fame, he inked a $500,000-a-week deal at the Las Vegas Hilton (including access to the resort’s private jet and a year-round suite), which lured him away from Caesars Palace. He supported and inspired countless performers, including Vegas staple Clint Holmes, who is quoted in the 2006 book Las Vegas Dreams as regarding Cosby as “my single greatest influence.”

Now the cancellation confirms Cosby as persona non grata in Vegas. Next, I assume, TI’s sports book will stop taking bets on NFL games in which players include actual, convicted sex offenders and wife beaters, right? And maybe ignore the next boxing matchup involving Floyd Mayweather Jr., a man who has been jailed for domestic abuse and is perpetually fending off similar accusations.

Cosby may be a rapist. If so, prosecute the guy. Surely, there must be recent cases still within the crime’s statute of limitations. I’m not saying it didn’t happen. I’m just saying we don’t know and, legally, nobody has proven anything. That used to matter, right?

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