February 2, 2009
In defense of Michael Phelps and his "youthful and inappropriate" behavior and "bad judgment," taken on its own, this is far from the worst slip-up ever by a national hero. This space surely isn't the only one in which the first reaction to the now-infamous photo - eight-time gold medalist from the previous Olympics with a marijuana pipe stuck in his grille - was laughter. Plus, his instant contrition and pledge to do better, along with his near-universal fame, likely give him a cushion a lot of other celebrities wouldn't get.
Except it can't be taken on its own, and thus it's infuriating. He, more than anyone else, should have known better. When, four years earlier, after your first Olympics, you were arrested on a DUI charge, you should know better.
Then, Phelps went through the ritual of apologizing for doing something dumb and terribly dangerous, promising that he would learn from it and making amends to the people he hurt (his mother, his coach, all his supporters). There was a sense that though he still had the minefield of worldwide fame, youth and riches to navigate, he would be aware of the danger spots.
The photo, and his mea culpa, tells you that he wasn't nearly as aware as even the average person would be.
Why? Let us not absolve ourselves of blame; before, during and after the Beijing Games last summer, the drunken-driving incident was all but left out of the heroic narrative. One wonders whether he thought he was done paying any consequences for it.
Still, if that bust didn't teach him anything worth retaining, he should have gained something from seeing previous personalities caught in what they thought was a private place by a camera or cell phone.
Matt Leinart can trace his backup role for the Arizona Cardinals in last night's Super Bowl at least indirectly to the photo last summer of him at a party basically immersed in beer. Larry Eustachy submarined a then-promising college basketball coaching career six years ago when photographed at a post-game party with beer and young women on hand. And Shaquille O'Neal will forever have the phrase "Tell me how my [expletive] tastes" fused to his legacy along with his four NBA championships.
Rule of thumb: If you're going to do something you might have to apologize for later, don't do it in a room full of people. Unless persistent ridicule and a torched reputation are your chosen career path, that is.
None of this disqualifies Phelps from acting like an insanely rich and famous 23-year-old with three years to kill before the next Olympics. But how much of your life do you want to spend explaining away something that could have been avoided? "Boys will be boys" works for only so long, and he used up that pass four years ago, anyway.
And let's not pretend that the rules we've all applied to every jock in America since the beginning of time do not apply here. The point made in this space Sunday can easily be applied to Phelps. There are bigger role models in life than people in sports, and an often-coddled, undereducated, instantly rich twenty-something, terribly lacking in life experience, is the last person whose actions your kids should be emulating.
But, as they say, to whom much is given (like an estimated $50 million in endorsements), much is expected. It is expected from Charles Barkley, who long ago rejected that obligation for good reason, and it is expected of Phelps, who accepted it all, along with the money.
That might be too much to ask of Phelps or anybody else. Learning from not one, but two, painful and embarrassing lessons is not too much to ask.
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