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Monday, February 2, 2009

Big deal

In the past twenty-four hours, several media outlets, including the front page of this morning's NY Post, have run headlines announcing that Michael Phelps has admitted the picture of him smoking a bong was real.

Does this strike anyone else as less than front page-worthy news? (If he were in the NFL or NBA, he'd have to take steroids or rape or shoot someone to make the front page.)

Phelps was evidently visiting a girlfriend at the University of South Carolina and bellied up to the bong at a party. Someone then snapped a photo of him. There is now talk that he may lose some of his endorsements.

The funniest part of the whole incident was his apology: "I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I'm 23 years old and despite the successes I've had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in the manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again."

What's funny about this statement, of course, is that it was so obviously crafted by his agent in conjunction with a lawyer. Note that he never actually admitted to marijuana use -- that would be illegal -- he only admitted "bad judgment." The statement says that he acted this way "despite the success I've had in the pool." This implies that swimming fast results in emotional maturity. (Not in my experience.)

Phelps also says that his actions were "not in the manner people have come to expect from me." Phelps has done nothing but hang around casinos, strip clubs, and bars since winning his eight golds. You certainly can't blame him for that, what better way for a rich 23 year old celebrity to have a good time? But it is the behavior people now expect from him. Finally, he promises his fans that it will not happen again. The picture was snapped in November, and it's now February. He just started training a couple weeks ago, up until then it was still party time. I've also heard that even though he's now swimming again, he's still hitting the bars regularly. Somehow I doubt that his partying no longer includes marijuana use.

It's an "apology" full of doublespeak worthy of a congressman caught with his hand in the till. But it also strikes me as an apology which really shouldn't be all that necessary.

I've always found myself feeling neutral about Phelps the person, as opposed to Phelps the swimmer: he seems a pretty average guy who was brought up to be a fish, and whose unique physical attributes allowed him to become the greatest of all time. But average guys do stuff like drink beer and smoke marijuana. The difference is, average guys generally don't get photographed doing it, and if they do, nobody cares. It's just something kids do when they're young. It's more normal to try that stuff than not. (I'm not referring here to the hard drugs like cocaine or speed, which cause damage from first ingestion.)

By 23, most have realized that marijuana is in fact not all that much fun. But maybe Phelps feels he has some making up to do for all the partying he missed while training, during the years his high school classmates were partying. I suspect there may also have been an element of the young-but-famous guy wanting to show his fellow partiers that he was a regular guy. (I've met a few well known people and they all seem to feel obliged to prove their "regularness.")

In any case, there is now disappointment being expressed from certain quarters, since Phelps is a "role model." But what exactly is it that makes Phelps a role model? All those gold medals. And what allowed him to win those? Training, certainly, but there are plenty of other swimmers just as dedicated who didn't end up role models. What makes Phelps special are his 6'4" height, his 6'7" wingspan, his abnormally long torso and short legs for his height, his double jointed arms, his freakishly flexible ankles, his wide shoulders, his higher than average testosterone levels, and his naturally loose muscle.

How exactly does one model oneself after that?

I've never quite gotten the concept of a "role model." For most young boys to model themselves after Phelps, with his unique configuration, seems a bit of a lost cause.

It reminds me of Nike's old "Be like Mike" (Jordan) campaign. Yeah, just practice hard kid, some day you'll be sailing twenty feet through the air while simultaneously twisting and stuffing the ball.

A young girl might as well model herself after Tippi Hedren. You want to grow up to be that beautiful? Okay, well, hard!

Maybe I'm not giving Phelps credit for his intense focus and for doing the most with his physical attributes, both of which he most definitely deserves credit for. It's just that what sets him apart from all the other equally dedicated and tough swimmers is that he is gifted. The italics are to emphasize that a gift is something received, not earned.

As a swimming fan, I hope Phelps cuts down on his partying and gets back to business. I'm curious to see what he's capable of in some of his off events.

As an ex-young person, I can't get too indignant about his off-hours activities.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment of Phelps.

I think the ‘role model’ ideal of exemplary behavior is pinned on top athletes because children admire them and want to be like them. So people fear that bad athlete behavior sets a particularly powerful bad example to kids. I’m not saying I agree with this, its just one of those things the press and public expect.

When I see what young people are subjected to for certain misbehavior today, I think of what gigantic hypocrites some of the elders imposing the draconian punishments must be. I know what went on when I was a teenager and young adult. There’s no way that some of the adults raining hellfire on today’s youth for minor drinking violations etc. didn’t do the same when they were younger, and probably a lot worse.

John Craig said...

Thanks for your comment. Yes, usually the people with the loudest and most self-righteous senses of "morality" are in fact the closest to being sociopaths.

I can't think of a more victimless crime than going up to a bong at a college party and inhaling.