SHE SHOULDN'T have had to defend herself against a foul-mouthed man old enough to be her grandfather.

Yet, before a roomful of reporters and photographers, 20-year-old Essence Carson stood accused yesterday afternoon (before a bright-red backdrop with the words "Scarlet Knights" spelled out on it, bringing to mind images of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter").

What was Carson's crime? Being black and female, and having had the misfortune of coming to the attention of Don Imus, who referred to her and her Rutgers University teammates as "nappy-headed hos" during a radio broadcast last week, after their team lost the NCAA basketball championship game to Tennessee. The embattled shock jock has apologized and faces a two-week suspension that gets under way Monday.

Yesterday, the team announced plans to meet with Imus privately. As Carson calmly fielded questions, she came off more like a librarian or a future college professor than anything else. I kept thinking: This is one of the players that Imus referred to as a "ho"? I hoped he was watching.

Carson's the kind of young woman most parents dream of having as a daughter. You know the type I'm talking about. Straight-A student. Captain of the college basketball team. An accomplished pianist, Carson can play "Moonlight Sonata" from memory. She also plays guitar, drums, saxophone and bass. Her future is bright.

That's why Rutgers was so right to have called the news conference. It's a reminder to the world that these student athletes deserve more than to be disparaged by the likes of Imus. They're good kids, the ones doing the right thing. And they're so young to have achieved so much. Five of the players are only freshmen.

One of my newsroom colleagues is convinced that the news conference was just a big publicity stunt and that the players should have ignored Imus' insult, no matter how heinous. They could have done as former New York Times White House correspondent Gwen Ifill did when Imus called her a "cleaning lady": Just go on handling business, so to speak.

I disagree, because there are also moments in life when you have to fight back - if not for yourself, then for those who follow you. (Incidentally, Ifill publicly addressed the issue of Imus' insults about her for the first time yesterday in a piece in the Times.) No matter the discomfort, sometimes you have to take one for the team, as the saying goes. That's what Carson did so deftly yesterday.

"Driven to a point of mental and physical exhaustion, we ask that you not recognize us in a light as dimly lit as this, but in a light that encompasses the great hurdles we've overcome and the goals achieved this season," she said in a prepared statement.

"We haven't done anything to deserve this controversy, but yet it has taken a toll on us mentally and physically."

It's even more unfair when you consider that she and her teammates should be savoring their phenomenal season - not holding news conferences to protect their honor against someone who should know better.

Perhaps to deflect the shock jock's comment, or else knowing that the entire country would be watching, some of the Rutgers players apparently got their hair freshly straightened for the news conference, which was ironic considering Imus' statement about "nappy" hair. Maybe I'm being overprotective, but I can't help but hope that they haven't internalized Imus' negativity.

"These young ladies that you have seated before you are valedictorians of their class, future doctors, musical prodigies and, yes, even Girl Scouts," said C. Vivian Stringer, the team's coach. "They are young ladies of class and distinction. They are artistic. They are brilliant. They are gifted. They are God's representative in every sense of the word."

As sophomore Kia Vaughn pointed out, "Unless they've given 'ho' a whole new definition, that's not what I am."

Of course she's not.

It's sad that the furor over Imus' statements had reached the point that she and her teammates felt compelled to stand before a microphone and let the whole world know.

They shouldn't have had to do that. *