March 15, 2009
A harsh reality emerged from Michael Phelps' interview with NBC's Matt Lauer, the first part of which aired Friday morning, with the second part tonight: Phelps doesn't function that well in front of cameras he knows about, either.
It was far from a shining moment for the Olympic hero, his interviewer or the network that wasted expensive morning-show and prime-time airtime on these "exclusives." However, it did offer Phelps yet another lesson: For the time being, he's much better off keeping his head down, his profile low and his mouth closed. (Except when he's swimming, of course.)
Phelps, and his image, are at their best when he's in the pool. Trouble lurks beyond that, in the world of celebrity, whether he's dragged there or goes by choice.
Never mind, for the moment, that this wasn't exactly Frost/Nixon, nor even as informative or entertaining as Gammons/ A-Rod. Forget, for now, that the news value isn't obvious at all, with the story's expiration date long past, and especially once it was clear that Phelps wasn't going to admit to anything.
Despite the pleas by his supporters-apologists that he's "just a kid," Phelps, at 23, is old enough to exert control over when and how his life goes public. He now has two enormous examples (the DUI in 2004, the bong photo that was revealed last month) of the consequences of messing up. He also must know by now that he's getting a pass from large segments of the public that lots of others in his position would never come close to getting.
With that, then, Phelps should know that more talking isn't helping and is brushing dangerously close to hurting. Because on NBC the Baltimore resident came off as someone with less substance than even the average twenty-something, obsessively trained, socially repressed jock who struggles to express himself even when armed with an encyclopedia of canned public-relations responses.
For Phelps, the image from the magazine covers, cereal boxes and ad campaigns are much more beneficial. Unbeatable, majestic, confident - and silent. Barring a transformative change of personality and awareness, he should not stretch beyond that.
More important, Phelps can't land in a spot where he has to stretch beyond that. He has run out of excuses for not avoiding at least the most obvious land mines. The price is not a massive backlash or corporate pullout - as the bong incident proved - but more exposure as a guy who has little to offer besides fast pool times.
This is actually good, not just for him but for all of us. Maybe Phelps will be the impetus for us all to get out of the sports "role-model" assignment business forever, to permanently break the habit of anointing anyone who's on TV a lot as some kind of surrogate parent. Or would you want your child to reach Phelps' age and look and sound the way he did on camera this week, gold medals or not?
Of course, there is an alternative for Phelps: to grow up. To challenge himself more than his rationalizing fans do. To see what else in the real world he missed while training for the Games, besides partying like a teenager.
After all, being a worldwide iconic figure is supposed to be the opposite of limiting.
Listen to David Steele on Mondays from 4p.m. to 6p.m. and on Thursdays at 9:30a.m. on Fox Sports 1370 AM.
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