Possession and usage of marijuana. Sexual assault charges. Unloaded firearms stored in a locker room. Illegal substance abuse. Extramarital affairs and sex addiction. Murder and aggravated assault charges. Dogfighting and animal abuse charges.

These sound like typical crimes found in prisons, not in the sports world. Why are these crimes and scandals relevant to sports? Because recently, illustrious, superstar athletes have been caught engaging in risky situations.

Michael Phelps, the most decorated swimmer and Olympian ever, did more than smoke his competitors in the pool. After a photo was published showing him using a bong to smoke weed, people began to doubt his credibility as a role model.

Washington Wizards basketball fans know shooting guard Gilbert Arenas for shooting out the lights with his three-pointers. New York Giants football followers remember wide receiver Plaxico Burress gunning down the sidelines toward the end zone. Yet both athletes were in the news not for their high-scoring games, but because they both faced illegal gun charges. Now, guns taint their accomplishments.

Michael Vick is a fierce quarterback, fighting through defenders to score a touchdown. But his image changed from fierce competitor to fierce dog abuser in one sting from law enforcement.

Fans hail hard-hitting linebacker Ray Lewis as an intimidating force on the defensive side of the ball. Following murder charges in 2000, his legal defense team had to help him get back on the turf to help the Baltimore Ravens win Super Bowl XXXV the following year.

Multiple baseball players have admitted that they got "juiced" before hitting the field. Defamed home run sensation Mark McGwire teared up on camera when he admitted to using steroids during his career. Ironically enough, he recently accepted the position as St. Louis Cardinals hitting coach. Will he be passing along tips for slamming homers or slamming 'roids?

Then there are the sex scandals. Remember when basketball all-star Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers faced sexual assault charges? Most people have forgotten about that incident since the case was totally dismissed and he later went on to set and break multiple NBA records.

The ultimate lax bro-fest, the Duke University men's lacrosse team, wrapped itself up in a sex scandal that rocked the school to its foundation. All charges were later dropped when the judge discovered that they were false accusations.

Who knew that golf, a stereotypically boring, WASP-y sport, would become the next big tabloid sensation? When aggressive sexting, "golden showers" and Tiger Woods are involved, golf gets juicier.

These athletes are supposedly role models to millions, yet their behavior poses an important question many sports fans want an answer to: What kind of an image do American sports portray?

I am not discrediting these athletes' accomplishments - I certainly could not win eight gold medals in a single Olympics, and I also would epically fail in a Super Bowl or NBA All-Star game. I am saddened by the possibility that their achievements could be overshadowed and tainted by their scandals. But the images these athletes portray spoil the American sporting role models. Will these scandals and crimes influence the children who want to pursue professional athletics?

I grew up wanting to "be like Mike," but are children playing sports now going to want to grow up to be gun-toting, weed-smoking, dog-fighting, steroid-abusing, sex-addicted athletes? Yikes. I sure hope not.

I hope aspiring athletes replace those descriptions with positive contributions to sports, such as a continuation of breaking world records, winning Olympic gold medals and revamping the American image of its athletes.

Although sports are a form of entertainment, the constant mention of sports-affiliated scandals and crimes in print and broadcast media have surpassed the actual games and matches as the more entertaining aspect of sports. Whatever happened to the jingle, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game?" Given some professional athletes' recent run-ins with the law and paparazzi, perhaps we fans need to remix it to "Take Me Out to the Courtroom."

Maybe I am naive, a purist or simply filled with cliches, but I am more entertained when I see a hard-fought, good, clean, fun match up with the underdog winning. Then again, I have also seen every sporty, tear-jerker movie that has ever been made, and none of those stories involved the type of scandal or crime that overwhelms ESPN today.

American sports' image needs to change soon, especially before the US National Soccer team heads to South Africa for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Let's rewind to a time when the original "Dream Team" promoted a positive American image, while also blasting a Bruce Springsteen mash-up of "Born in the USA" and "Born to Run." I think that will solve the blurry, scandalous American sports image.

Hopefully, athletes not involved in troubling situations will take detailed game notes and learn from others' mistakes. There are too many aspiring athletes who want to be the next Michael Phelps, Tiger Woods or Ray Lewis, without the court appearances. Young athletes want to be winners in the pool, on the court, the field and the course. They don't want to have to be winners in the courtroom, unlike these scandalous athletes.

Contact staff writer Amelia Vogler at amelia.vogler@richmond.edu