Phelps used poor judgment, but he was just being a kid
A picture recently surfaced of Michael Phelps taking a bong hit
By owning up to his mistake, he should be able to save face
Swimming is known for having a train hard, play hard culture
How wrong we were. With his laid-back vibe and skateboard collection, Ryan Lochte was the Olympic swimmer who most reminded us of Jeff Spicoli. But clearly, it is Michael Phelps, among the Speedo set, who best embodies the true spirit of Ridgemont High's best-known stoner.
I've seen the picture of Phelps, published Sunday in the British tabloid News Of The World, with his mouth covering a glass tube that looks very much like something one might find advertised in a head shop, next to the "one-hitters" and the "stash-safes." I was willing to believe Aquaman was merely participating in a "lung function" test for a gaggle of admiring pre-med students. Then I remembered, you blow into the tube for those tests. In this photo, unlike in Beijing, Phelps is definitely sucking.
His prompt apology for "inappropriate behavior" would seem to extinguish any doubt that SI's 2008 Sportsman of the Year was doing anything other than "blazing up" with his new friends at the University of South Carolina, where he received a standing ovation at halftime of a Gamecocks football game last November.
In his Sportsman profile of Phelps, my gifted colleague Alan Shipnuck credited him with having "brought Americans together by the tens of millions, the TV serving as a portal to a faraway land and the outer limits of athletic achievement."
That's not hyperbole -- it really happened. So does it matter that the guy who did the uniting happens to be familiar with other, cylindrical portals, and their utility in transporting himself to a different sort of "faraway land?"
In the long run, probably not. Under the current World Anti-Doping Agency code, cannabis is not considered a banned substance during out-of-competition testing. So the Baltimore Bullet dodged a bullet there. Let's face it, catching "a cool buzz," in the words of Spicoli, doesn't carry quite the same stigma as it did, say, in 1936, when Reefer Madness was filmed; or even in the early '80s, when my father, the ex-Marine, once asked me, upon my return from a house party broken up by the cops: "Were any of those kids, you know, taking grass?"
If it did, our current president wouldn't be our current president. So if Phelps can clean up his act between now and the 2012 London Games, there should be minimal damage to his status as a global icon, and to the image that, it was speculated during those feverish days last August, might bring him more than $100 million in endorsements during his lifetime.
"Will some sponsors on the fence use this as a reason to back off? Maybe," writes Joe Favorito in his widely read Sports Marketing and PR Roundup. "But by acting quickly and smartly the Phelps team probably saved some dollars, some embarrassment, and maybe just maybe gained a little street cred with some edgier brands who may not have looked twice at his squeaky clean image coming out of Beijing." Yeah, it's a misdemeanor. But it's an edgy misdemeanor.
The news of Phelps' latest faux pas is less surprising when considered in the context of the headlines he tends to generate when not pulling water more efficiently than any human in history:
Four years ago he was sentenced to 18 months' probation for a DUI in Salisbury, Md. (In addition to giving speeches to students about the dangers of the demon rum, Phelps agreed to abstain from alcohol and illegal drugs. And while smoking a bit of herb didn't violate his probation, which ended in mid-2006, it probably left some students in Wicomico (Md.) County feeling a tad confused.)
And there was the Page Six item from the Dec. 2, 2008, New York Post, chronicling an untraditional Thanksgiving weekend Phelps spent at the Borgata in Atlantic City, where the "party and poker animal surrounded himself with bimbos and booze."
Is it so shocking that a 23-year-old would place his thumb over the little hole and avail himself of an Olympian serving of water-purified tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)? Not really. What this incident (and Phelps' allowing it to be photographed) suggests, more than anything, is that his intellect is less extraordinary than, say, his wingspan, or V02 max. The red flag here is an emerging pattern of bad judgment and compulsive behavior.
A person I know, who swims at a Big Ten school, describes a boom-and-bust culture in which some athletes, after "going dry" for a period of weeks, "party pretty hard once they get home, for a night, or a week, or right up until we have to start going to morning workouts again."
Bong-Gate, in that case, may simply be a case of a young man taking a break from an incredibly rigorous training regimen to sow a few wild oats. Hopefully, it will be the triggering incident that forces him to "put away childish things."
Because right now Phelps seems more intent on following the trail blazed by another Baltimore athlete. If he keeps this up, he may be remembered not as one of the greatest Olympic champions ever, but as the Babe Ruth of swimming.
In the meantime, let's all relax (short of firing up the nearest bong), and be grateful that even though Phelps may not be above copping the occasional "cool buzz," he remains, by every indication, a stranger to performance-enhancing drugs. He is an imperfect, but clean, champion. To find out otherwise -- now that would truly suck.
PIPE PIC: That photo of Phelps smoking? It's real
MARKAZI: Phelps a medalist, not a role model
INVESTIGATION: SC sheriffs mulling criminal charge