Wednesday, February 4, 2009

High on the Pedestal

Sometimes it’s easy to forget celebrities and athletes are as human as the rest of us. That is especially true of Michael Phelps, who because of his inhuman feats in the pool, some might think he has gills.

But Phelps offered up another reminder over the weekend, when a photo of him inhaling from a marijuana pipe surfaced in the British tabloid News of the World. Phelps did not argue the authenticity of the photo, which was taken at a campus party at the University of South Carolina back in November, and immediately issued an apology.

Not one of those typical, half-assed apologies we normally get from athletes. You know, the whole “I apologize to anyone who was offended” thing. No, Phelps took complete responsibility for his actions, calling what he did “regrettable” and an exercise in “bad judgment.” Say what you will about the youthful immaturity that led him to smoking marijuana in the first place – Phelps demonstrated remarkable maturity in owning up for his mistake.

I’m not condoning marijuana use – mostly because it’s illegal almost everywhere – and I think Phelps should suffer some sort of backlash from this (the Richland County Sheriff’s Office said on Wednesday they’re considering charges, pending an investigation), but in light of his apology, I’m willing to give him another chance. I realize this would be his third strike, since he was busted for DUI following the 2004 Olympics in Athens, but shouldn’t we allow young people to make mistakes and learn from them, even if they were thrust into the public eye after turning every pool in Beijing into their personal playground?

Eight gold medals landed Phelps a lot of money, but they didn’t make him infallible.

Fact is, smoking marijuana isn’t that unusual for a 23-year-old. If Phelps were a typical 23-year-old, this would barely be a blip on the proverbial radar, but given who he is and what he’s accomplished in his athletic career – not to mention the millions of dollars in endorsements he’s raking in – Phelps left typical a long time ago.

In the age of the Internet and cell phone cameras, celebrities and athletes have even less privacy than before; look no further than Arizona Cardinals backup Matt Leinart, who could be seen last offseason entertaining possibly-underage co-eds at keggers with beer bongs and the like. Though the Cardinals never said so, I’m not convinced those parties didn’t contribute to Leinart’s benching in favor of veteran Kurt Warner.

Phelps needs to realize that his fortune and sudden fame make doing most things impossible now – including smoking weed in private. There is no privacy for people like Phelps anymore, and the sooner he realizes that and straightens himself out, the better off everyone will be.

Phelps has said he hopes to compete in London in 2012, but if he doesn’t learn from this the way he promised he would (in the interest of fairness, he said almost the exact same thing after his DUI), he might not be able to compete. The World Anti-Doping Agency and the IOC can’t touch Phelps, since he never tested positive at the site of competition, but if sponsors pull the plug and the law gets a hold of him, that might be a whole different game.

Millions of people, including children, look up to Phelps. This is a chance for them to learn a lesson as well – that our heroes are often as human and mistake-prone as the rest of us, and that athletic prowess is a reason to respect someone, but not a reason to worship.

Though Charles Barkley might argue otherwise, Phelps is a role model. He needs to start acting like one.

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