THE IMAGE shocks and confuses: O.J. Simpson, led away in handcuffs, then charged in the murder of his former wife and another man.
Simpson was the consummate American success story - a troubled youth who became a football hero, television commentator, corporate pitchman, comedy actor. Parents pointed to him as a role model, kids liked him and respected him, yet none of them really knew him. They saw his warm smile and eager eyes but heard little about him beating his wife.
There have been other jarring images this year: Jennifer Capriati in a police mug shot, arrested for marijuana possession; Tonya Harding in a courtroom, plea bargaining in a conspiracy against Nancy Kerrigan; Mickey Mantle, his face drawn, recovering from a lifetime of excessive drinking.
Sports heroes come and go. Sometimes they go down hard. But contrary to popular belief, they really are not role models who exert a profound or lasting influence on most youngsters. Idols, yes. But role models, no.
When black youth were asked in a national survey to name two or three people they most admire, Michael Jordan tied with God.
If that seems a curious commentary on America's values, it should be noted that most of the 11- to 17-year-old blacks questioned in a recent Children's Defense Fund poll cited their parents as role models.
Mom and dad were named by 53 percent, God and Jordan by 6 percent each. In between were grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, teachers and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Associated Press asked child psychologists, sociologists, athletes, coaches and hundreds of kids whether children actually use sports figures as role models.
The answer is an emphatic no. To children, athletes are ideals, setting standards of excellence in sports and success in life.
"As role models, athletes have a negligible effect on most kids," said William Beausay, president of the Academy of Sports Psychologists. "A role model is someone you learn roles from - what mothers do, what fathers do, what students do. It's a formal kind of set of rules that they're learning. Athletes and musicians are more like heroes to kids."
Charles Barkley stirred up debate about the issue of role models when he said in a TV commercial last year that "I'm not paid to be a role model."
The Phoenix Suns star later said he had been misunderstood, that it was acceptable to use athletes as "secondary role models."
"Parents should point out some of the positive things in athletes' lives, but that shouldn't be the only thing," Barkley said. "Parents have to do a better job of leading their kids. Making athletes the main role models sends the message, especially to black kids, that the only way they can make it is in athletics.
"It makes me shudder when people tell kids they can be anything they want. Well, they can't be Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley or Barry Bonds. There's only one of those."
Even as heroes, athletes can deeply affect children at a critical stage in development. Many kids from about 8 to 12 years old, looking for examples of success, fantasize about becoming athletes and identify with them. Athletes are especially idealized by kids who lack positive role models at home.
Fighting, taunting and trash-talking among pro and college players, shown repeatedly on television, lead to similar actions in football, basketball and baseball in high schools.
Misbehavior by athletes that kids hear about but don't see - drug use, gambling, speeding, carrying a gun - is less likely to be copied. Kids may do the same things but for other reasons. Instead, kids are left disillusioned by their heroes and become more cynical as they get older.
Adolescents make a lot of judgments about athletes beyond their performances. The character traits in athletes that older kids most admire are intelligence, caring, sportsmanship and morality, not the ad world's images of sexiness or good looks. …