Michael Phelps is not the first 23-year-old to smoke pot. He is, however, the first 23-year-old to smoke pot just three months after winning eight Olympic swimming gold medals, while in the midst of positioning himself as an all-American role model and pitchman for children, moms and dads, and everyone else who fell in love with him over the summer.
That’s why Phelps has a big problem today.
Phelps admitted Sunday to “regrettable” behavior and “bad judgment” after a photo of him smoking marijuana appeared in a British tabloid, News of the World. The tabloid said the incident occurred Nov. 6 at a house party at the University of South Carolina.
This is a sad day for Phelps, and a sadder day for the millions of parents and young athletes who planned their lives around his races last August. How disappointed must they be that a glorious hero, a person in whom they placed their trust, has done something illegal for which he must apologize? And this isn’t just any old hero, this is everyone’s Sportsman of the Year and Olympian of a Lifetime, the man who allowed himself to be put on the highest pedestal, the great Michael Phelps.
It will be days, perhaps even weeks, before we know the extent of the damage to Phelps’ endorsements and career. Perhaps there won’t be any at all, although we can only imagine the reaction in Battle Creek, Mich., where no advertising executive ever envisioned pairing Corn Flakes with pot.
But we already have learned much about Phelps from this latest news, coupled as it logically must be with his guilty plea to drunk driving after the 2004 Olympic Games. Back then, Phelps had far less to lose. But in that case, and in this one too, it appears he wanted it all: fame, fortune, untouchable role model status and the ability to have all the fun a young man can possibly muster.
Unfortunately for Phelps, his life cannot successfully work that way. He and his agent could have said no to every endorsement deal. But he and his agent didn’t do that. They instead chose a path that guaranteed his every move would be photographed and monitored by every cell phone camera in every room he entered.
When that choice was made, Phelps had to make another choice that he apparently did not make. It’s kind of rule of thumb for him: If you’re going to make millions as the all-American boy selling cereal and Subway sandwiches to the nation, no matter how young you are, you really must be able to stop yourself from taking a hit off a marijuana pipe.
Back in 2004, after his DUI arrest, Phelps said he had learned his lesson: “I’ve let a lot of people down, including myself. It is definitely an honor to be a role model for kids, and I hope to still be one and to have fans out there. This is a mistake that I made, and I’m going to have to live with this for the rest of my life.”
Four years later, there’s another mistake and another apology. You want to believe him, of course, because he’s Michael Phelps. But, sadly, now, you do have to wonder.