We don't truly know our athletes

We don't truly know our athletes, particularly those sports celebrities who reach the upper stratosphere of wealth, popularity and fame. That golden rule applies and extends to individuals such as actor Tom Cruise just as it does to quarterback Michael Vick, to pop singer Britney Spears as well as boxer Oscar De La Hoya. Where reality and perception intersect is where we traverse a dangerous path riddled with obstacles.

Image shouldn't be everything, but in today's society unfortunately it overshadows the value of more tangible qualities. Consequently, we are taught from a young age to exalt athletes when they are human and flawed just like the rest of us.

They are held up as role models instead of the more appropriate grouping of parents and teachers. Often, this phenomenon sets us up for bitter disappointment.

Which brings us to the complicated saga of Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers' superstar arrested but not charged with sexual assault recently at a posh resort in Colorado. He remains under investigation.

We know this about Bryant. His reputation precedes him for possessing a sweet jump shot, wings for arms and rocket boosters for legs. He is fluent in Italian. He is free of tattoos. He urges us in commercials to drink Sprite, which coincidentally tells us that, "Image is everything."

He is married with a young child. He tells us he doesn't drink alcohol. His parents were upset when he married a white woman, refusing to attend the wedding.

Now, many of us are recalibrating our thoughts on Bryant, the athlete, vs. Bryant, the person. We don't know what did or didn't happen between Bryant and an unidentified woman described in press accounts as a former cheerleader who sang beautifully in her church choir.

He hasn't been convicted of any crime, nor found guilty in the court of public opinion.

Yet, while most of us recoil from rushing to judgment several pundits have already cast aspersions on Bryant's character. Judging athletes hastily, though, can lead to ruined reputations, a tragedy in itself.

"When everything comes clean, it will all be fine, you'll see," Bryant told the Los Angeles Times. "But you guys know me, I shouldn't have to say anything. You know I would never do something like that."

Even in the media we don't really know, Kobe, though.

We know what athletes' performances are like during a full count in the ninth inning with the bases juiced, barking out signals in the two-minute drill, or at the foul line in overtime. It doesn't mean we have knowledge of whether or not they beat their dogs, are rude to waiters or tip generously.

We are on an aimless search for heroes and heroines. That's why I recommend we admire athletes for their talent and will without blind assumptions regarding their character.

Placing someone atop a pedestal for being anything more than an elite athlete is silly and short-sighted.

We should begin our search for role models at home and in the classroom: appropriate venues to identify heroes you can really, truly get to know and admire.

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