SHOULD WE ROOT for Mike Tyson?

That was the question posed earlier this year on the cover of a national sports magazine.When Tyson climbs into the ring, as he did last Saturday night, should we root for him? Should we cheer for a man who did a stretch in prison for rape and remains unrepentant?

Before you answer that, you have to answer this: On what basis do you cheer for someone?

Do you cheer for the person (what he is) or the athlete (his skills), or both?

Do you cheer for Michael Jordan because he's the best basketball player on the planet and a winner, or because he appears to be a classy, dignified man with a great wardrobe, or all of the above?

Do you cheer for George Foreman because he's a fat, middle-aged man who likes to eat, like the fellow you see in the mirror every morning, or because he's a slugger?

Do you cheer for Steve Young because he's a good guy or because he's a good quarterback, or both?

Do you cheer for Dennis Rodman in spite of, or because of, his strange behavior and appearance? Or is it because he's a nonpareil rebounder?

(Do the people or teams we cheer, and/or the reasons we cheer for them, say something about ourselves?)

Do you cheer for Mike Tyson because you cheer excellence in any form, and you think he's a superb and overpowering boxer? Or is it also because you think he's a terrific human being and a tough guy who has overcome great odds?

Did you ever think cheering could be this complicated?

Is all this too deep for the sports fan who just wants entertainment to go with his Coke and dog?

Hey, sit down, we're not finished with this yet.

Sometimes our cheering seems capricious, at best. The public never has embraced Carl Lewis, and he's never, as far as anyone knows, broken a law. All he's done is win eight Olympic gold medals without a visible, genuine personality.

Yet Darryl Strawberry, having achieved the triple crown of wife beating, tax evasion and substance abuse, received a lengthy standing ovation from Yankee fans when he returned to major league baseball last summer.

People cheer for Bobby Knight even though he is a time-proven jerk who throws chairs, curses tournament officials, turns vulgar and mean when he wants to blow steam and generally thinks he's smarter and better than anyone else on earth.

On the other hand, if we choose to cheer for the person as a whole, we're not left with much to cheer these days, are we?

This has been a particularly difficult year to embrace athletes. We learned again of the late Mickey Mantle's failings. We saw O.J. Simpson's darker side. We learned that Duke Snider didn't pay his taxes. We discovered, much to our astonishment, that two paragons of decorum - Warren Moon and Robert Parish - beat their wives. Then there were the falls/comebacks of Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. And more, more, more.

If you learned nothing else this year, you learned that you might not really know the person you cheer. Simpson proved that. Moon and Parish, too. It's easy to be fooled by faces in the ring or on TV or in rental-car commercials or movies.

But Tyson has revealed himself to us. There's been little veneer here. He's said he derives pleasure from hurting a woman. He's said the best punch he ever threw was aimed at his wife. He did time for rape.

There has never been anything in Tyson's character or life beyond the ring worth cheering. But he has legions of fans, some of whom threw him a hero's welcome when he left prison.

But back to the question: When we cheer for Tyson, are we cheering the rapist or the boxer, or both? Are the two separable? Does cheering a man in the ring constitute a form of support for the person beyond the ring? Doesn't the man in the ring maintain the man outside the ring?

Or can you simply ignore Tyson's dark side and enjoy his fighting feats and leave it at that?

Should we root for Tyson? Maybe it's a pretentious question. Maybe we should remind ourselves that it's just a game to fill our leisure time, and therefore we should lighten up and cheer whomever we want, whatever the reason.

Or should we?