Does embattled Michael Phelps deserve a break?
A young man appears to be smoking pot at a party. Big deal, right? Our new president has freely admitted doing just that in his youth - inhaling, too - and it didn’t derail him one bit. So should we expect more of Michael Phelps?
It depends on what we want and expect our youthful role models to be: perfect, or flawed like the rest of us.
And so as the Olympic swimmer’s many corporate sponsors were wrestling with their options Monday, a day after an embarrassing photo emerged of the decorated athlete appearing to inhale from a bong, some were looking at the bright side.
"We should grab this teachable moment," said Lisa Bain, executive editor of Parenting magazine. "It’s a good opportunity to talk to your kids about role models. They’re human. They’re not gods."
"Any conversation you can have with your kids about the choices people make, especially those they hold up as role models, is a good thing," Bain said.
To her and to many others, there’s no question that Phelps is a role model for young kids, as opposed to, say, a mere celebrity endorser. Only role models appear on Kellogg’s cereal boxes, for example. And that complicates the problems for this young man, whose journey to eight gold medals in Beijing last year captivated the world.
"Breakfast cereal - that’s really speaking to kids between 6 and 12," said Marian Salzman, known as a trendspotter in the advertising industry. "He has big, important deals, in a terrible economy. This is just wacky."
But that doesn’t mean Phelps, 23, doesn’t deserve a break, says Salzman, chief marketing officer of the Porter Novelli public relations firm. She blames his handlers, who should have done a much better job protecting him from the foibles of youth, from newly won freedom, and from piles of money.
"He’s probably a nice boy who didn’t get enough guidance," said Salzman - especially after a drunken driving arrest following the 2004 Olympics. "I think he accomplished that huge dream in Beijing, and then his people just relaxed."
Of course, smoking pot, assuming that’s what Phelps was inhaling from that bong, is not nearly as serious as endangering lives on the road.
Indeed, perceptions of marijuana use have changed since 1987, when federal appellate judge Douglas Ginsburg withdrew from consideration for the Supreme Court after reports surfaced about his smoking marijuana while a student and a law professor.
In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton admitted he’d tried it as a student in England, didn’t like it, and, famously, didn’t inhale. Fast forward to 2006, when Barack Obama said just as famously: "I inhaled frequently. That was the point."
Still, as Bain points out, "No matter what we may have done in our youth, you can’t be saying to kids that it’s not so bad. First, it’s illegal. And also, it can lead people to make bad choices."
The Phelps affair is sure to revive the debate over whether athletes should even be considered role models. "I don’t think they are," Salzman said. "We have a tendency to deify people who are great at one thing. We assume they’re great at everything. When we want them to be infallible, aspirational, perfect, it never works."
Especially in 2009, when a simple visit to a party can be recorded on a cell phone camera. "The whole question of role models is a big problem in the age of 24/7 connectivity," she said.
So maybe our expectations of a 23-year-old exploring his freedom and new celebrity are too great. On the other hand, Phelps signed contracts with morals and behavior clauses, which allow sponsors to cancel deals over egregious behavior, noted Carol Weston, an author of books for young girls and the advice columnist for Girls’ Life magazine.
"He knew he was being hired not just because of his accomplishments in the pool, but also for his ongoing behavior in public," Weston said. "It’s part of the deal."
That said, Phelps’ apology sounded genuine to her. "It wasn’t the lame, ’sorry-if-anyone-got-offended’ kind," she said. And in the athlete’s defense, she added: "I often think, ’Wow, he spent a lot of time underwater. When did he even get to hang out with friends?’"
It remains to be seen what happens with Phelps’ sponsors. Apparel company Speedo, luxury Swiss watchmaker Omega and sports beverage PureSport all say they support him. But other big sponsors, such as Visa Inc. and Kellogg Co., aren’t talking yet.
His agency, Octagon, said Phelps has spoken personally with his sponsors to apologize and that the agency was encouraged by his sponsors’ support.
Weston, the author, fears that if Phelps emerges unscathed, parents seeking a teachable moment are going to have a tricky situation on their hands. "If this all works out for him, parents are going to have a pretty hard time saying drugs are bad," she said.
Whatever happens, syndicated ethics columnist Randy Cohen sees a different problem. He takes no issue with possible pot smoking - only with what he sees as hypocrisy implicit in Phelps’ apology.
"So the guy smokes pot," Cohen said. "For once I’d like someone to say, ’Yeah, I smoke pot, it’s harmless and I enjoy it.’" Instead, he said, Phelps is lying by pretending he’ll never do it again.
As for whether Phelps is a role model for kids, Cohen dismisses the notion that any athlete or celebrity, for that matter, should be seen that way.
"The people who should be shaping our kids’ conduct are parents, friends, people they know in the community," Cohen said. "Michael Phelps’ glory is that he’s an incredibly talented swimmer. Unless your child happens to be a fish, why do you want him to be a role model?"