James Lofton of the Green Bay Packers, whom the current issue of Sports Illustrated calls perhaps the best pass receiver in the NFL, was a troubled young man who threw tantrums with his teammates and insulted his fans. A couple of seasons ago, he met a woman who brought tranquility and focus to his life. This is not an odd story in and of itself, but some readers were glad to see a black woman cast in that role, for it provided an uplift to the battered self-concept of so many other black women.

Too often in the past, the examples of the mates chosen by top athletes and movie actors who often serve as role models for young children have seemed like a rejection of people who look like themselves. This has produced a collective bruised ego among some black women. That bitterness sparked another scenario here last week that was in stark contrast to the picture-perfect togetherness of Beverly and James Lofton.

Fred Williamson, a former football star and now an actor, was the guest on the "Petey Greene Show," which is taped here in the studios of WDCA-TV (Channel 20) and is broadcast to 800 cities over Black Entertainment Television. One woman in the audience rose and asked Williamson if it was "myth or reality" that once successful black men reach a certain level of financial success and fame, they can no longer "deal with a black woman."

Williamson responded: "Everything in life is a matter of exposure. As your status changes and as your economical status changes, your exposure to life changes. However, when a guy makes a lot of money his social status changes and his exposure changes. It doesn't matter if the girl is white, sometimes she can be Japanese, Chinese or Mexican, but if she is on the same economic status and [social] status that is where their association is. If you associate in that circle, that is sometimes the circle you stay in."

One's choice of a mate is a very individual one, and just as certainly as there is no guarantee that skin color in and of itself makes for compatibility, each individual has the right to his choice of a mate. But in expressing his personal preferences, Williamson managed to level an insult at all black women.

Remarks such as those are absurd in their implication that there are no poor women of other races and no rich, cultured women who are black. One hears in Williamson's answer that a man like him "moves up" and moves beyond the level of black women; really, this says more about his limitations than anything else. Such attitudes may be behind the increasing number of black women who are broadening their sights beyond black men. Moreover, the narrowness of Williamson's remarks is an affront to black men as well, sending the message that the attitudes he carried with him to his own success are ones they should hold as well.

Still, the deeper problem is that too many black women are trapped by this myth. Take, for example, the reaction to the question and the response once Williamson answered it. Host Greene, not known for ducking controversial subjects, at first sought to shield his guest but the women in the audience were in an uproar, applauding their wish to have the actor answer the question. Williamson assured Greene that it was an "easy" question that he could handle. After he answered, however, no one in the audience challenged him. The questioner, Lavern Jackson, said later she didn't feel it appropriate to push further. But it strikes me that self-respect may have been sacrificed in this case to politeness.

Often, black men will ascribe their preference for women of other races to the "fact" that black women are "less gentle," another myth that has trapped black women and from which they must liberate themselves. If honesty and directness are what gives rise to this criticism, then these are traits to be admired, rather than faulted.

I'm grateful that a week that brought me Fred Williamson also brought me James Lofton. Lofton left me something to show my children. Williamson left an outdated attitude that should be buried.