The recent photo of Michael Phelps using a bong has caused a huge uproar in America’s court of public opinion. The millions and millions of people that followed Phelps during his incredible run at the 2008 Summer Olympics are now the same people that are both disappointed and outraged by the sight of Phelps smoking marijuana, and rightfully so. His actions were blatantly wrong and out of line. But Phelps also did a nice job of stating the obvious soon after the photo was released when he said he acted with “behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment.” How profound. By the way, Hugh Grant thinks he “demonstrated bad judgment” too with the whole Elizabeth Hurley – Divine Brown “incident.” However, the truth is that Michael Phelps really should not have been forced to state the obvious. He probably should not have been forced to apologize - the stupidity that his picture exposed was more than enough punishment. In fact, the apology was more for our benefit, the “people’s benefit”, than anything else, but I do not think it was entirely necessary. Yes, Michael Phelps did a very dumb thing, and he deserves any criticism or punishment that he gets for it. But if we as a public were surprised by this, and felt that an apology was necessary, then shame on us. We should have known better, and I’ll tell you why.
First, let’s examine just how stupid Phelps’ actions were (as if it isn’t glaring enough already). The initial reason why this action by Phelps is so indefensible is because he was charged with a DWI in late 2004 when he was only 19-years-old. If you agree with the concept that every public figure is allotted at least one mistake, then Phelps made sure to use his up on a doozy. If you believe second chances are one chance too many, then you’ve probably been off the Phelps bandwagon for quite some time now. Either way, Phelps’ error was obtrusive. Drunken driving charges are usually reserved for young B-list actors or pompous NFL stars, so we were shocked to hear when an underage swimming prodigy committed the same blunder. But Phelps quickly owned up to his mistake and apologized vehemently, so we withheld our superior protests and let it slide - to a certain extent. We hoped this was just an example of a young athlete who became a celebrity (almost over night) and handled the fame in the wrong way. We hoped his apology and regret were genuine. We hoped it was a one time deal. Unfortunately, Phelps had us all fooled.
When the “weed picture” surfaced, we all realized how immature and careless Phelps truly is - to put it nicely. Our disappointment and displeasure were overwhelming. The laundry list of things wrong with Phelps’ choice in this situation is longer than the bong he smoked from. And the worst part is that this entire uproar could have easily been avoided. First of all, Phelps could have grown out of his 10th grade phase and not smoked weed. “Blowing Dro” is a pretty stupid decision to begin with, but I just feel that it is exponentially more ridiculous when a 23-year-old, world-class athlete, Olympic record holder, Sportsman of the Year, and American legend is the one smoking weed in the friendly confines of a college dorm room. Is this the most productive thing the owner of 14 Olympic medals can find to do with his time? Maybe we should make those races a little tougher for him. Or maybe Phelps should tone down his “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” act. At some point, you have to grow up, and evidentially Michael has not reached that point yet.
But to be honest, Phelps is not the only 23-year-old out there that is doing dope, so even if he felt compelled to smoke, he could have done so in a much smarter manner. The man makes an estimated $5 million a year in endorsements and is said to be worth up to $100 million all totaled. Don’t you think he can afford to smoke his own weed, out of his own bong, in the comfort of his own home? If he is so set on getting high, wouldn’t you believe that he could fit that activity into his budget and his own personal time? It just seems much more sensible to do something so childish and illegal with a little more discretion, rather than running around like a loon, “Pineapple Express” style. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like Phelps made his “recreational” selection a lot worse by doing it with his college buddies. And yet, the fact that so many were so appalled by the spread of the infamous photograph is fairly surprising to me. By now, you would have thought that we as sports fans, as fans in general, would have been prepared for something like this. You would have thought we would have seen this coming.
Let’s step back and examine this situation for what it really is: a kid in his early twenties that got busted for smoking marijuana. When you look at it from that angle, the shock value isn’t nearly as high (no pun intended). A kid, who became more rich and famous than he could have ever imagined or prepared himself for, got caught doing something stupid…which actually makes sense. And if you do not agree with that, then think about it from this point of view (By the way, I can’t take credit for this concept – ESPN.com writer Bill Simmons was the first person I heard it from): if someone had followed you around when you were in your late teens and early twenties, how many stupid things would they have busted you doing? How many embarrassing pictures could they have snapped of you? How many times did you do something that, looking back, you realize was so mind-numbingly stupid that it’s a shock you were even allowed to be a part of a civilized society? Hmm…it’s a lot, isn’t it? Just one reason why we shouldn’t be surprised by Phelps. We should be disappointed, but not surprised.
Now, I do believe that Michael Phelps is in an entirely different situation than most everyone else. As someone that has placed himself in such a lofty position in our culture, I strongly believe that he has different standards of which he should live by. Phelps has vaulted himself to an iconic status in our world today; he has become one of the richest and most recognizable athletes on the planet, and whether he likes it or not, he is a role model. Whether he asked for it or not, there are countless amounts of kids that look up to him, countless amounts of men and women that respect him and need him to be a positive example of success and accomplishment in today’s world. Phelps put himself in the position of a superstar and a mentor, a position that he has now abused and disgraced. When he looks in the mirror, he might see just a normal 23-year-old guy, but that is not how everyone else views him. Regardless of how he wants things to be, he’s different, and he has different criteria to live up to. So far, he hasn’t done that, because in the end, he’s still as human as the rest of us. We should be disappointed, but not surprised.
Another reason why we should have seen the “Phelps Phaux-Pas” coming is the impeccable record of idiocy that Phelps’ fellow athletes have laid before us for the past few decades. Those that do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, which seems to be the code that athletes live by. No matter how many times we have seen it – over and over again – athletes still continue to get in trouble with the law. Whether it’s the NFL, NBA, MLB, college athletes or Olympic athletes, an infinite amount of competitors have been arrested or involved in controversy over the years. There have been the repeat offenders like Darryl Strawberry, Mike Tyson and Pacman Jones. But, there have also been the supposed “good-guys” that have tripped up once or twice, whether it be Kobe Bryant, Eugene Robinson or Charles Barkley. Why is the Phelps situation so shocking? Why is he different from everyone else? Why did we expect better from him? We should be disappointed, but not surprised.
It would appear as if athletes have perfected the art of getting in trouble, becoming seemingly more and more careless with every new contract, endorsement, or public exposure they receive. This is partly because every little blunder they commit is magnetized, due to their standing in the public light. Now, as athletes, you would expect them to embrace their lifestyle in a positive way, using their fame and fortune to become role models and philanthropists instead of fugitives and criminals. You would expect all of them to be grateful for the blessings that have put them in a position to affect the lives of others. But should we really be so naïve to think that they will all be like this? These are the same men and women that whine about their million dollar contracts, and feel it isn’t fair to play on a bad team or have to work so hard for the money they “deserve.” The writing is on the wall, but somehow we fail to see it.
It would be unfair if I didn’t mention that not all athletes are like this. Some athletes do it the right way. In fact, the majority of athletes are great people that give back to their community and make the world a better place. Even a lot of the athletes that do screw up at some point are great people, but we hear so much more about the opposing side. The good is greatly out-shadowed by the bad, because we put these athletes on such a high pedestal. Unfortunately, they don’t always live up to those lofty expectations. Unfortunately, they do make those prominent mistakes.
You can blame Phelps’ actions on numerous things: he hasn’t had a true father figure for a large amount of his life…he became too famous too fast…he’s just a kid. But the truth is that he screwed up, just like we all have at some point in our lives and will at some point again. It shouldn’t be accepted or condoned, but it shouldn’t be mind blowing either. Phelps is among the vast majority of us that have all been humbled before God. We should be disappointed, but not surprised.
Sadly, the Michael Phelps incident is just one of the many ill-fated events to befall the sports figures and celebrities of our world. They are all real people, and they all screw up. They cause scenes at strip clubs, commit domestic violence, get arrested on drug charges and have more DUI’s than speeding tickets. It isn’t right, and it certainly isn’t fair to the fans that look up to them and support them and pay good money to see them do their job. But it is the truth. They are just as human and just as stupid as the rest of us. The sooner we accept it, the less disappointed we will be.
The empty apology that Phelps was forced to give back to us was really unnecessary. Sure, we are the same people that supported him and cheered him on and counted him as one of our own. But he doesn’t know us, has probably never met any of us and he probably never will. So why do we feel like we deserve an apology? I’m sure he is ashamed of himself and ashamed that he set a bad example and let his fans down, but our disdain and desire for an apology just shows that we expect something from him, that we were shocked by his most recent mistake, when we have seen countless examples of this behavior by athletes before. Truthfully, they should be better, and maybe we deserve better. But by now, we should realize the fact that things are what they are. We should accept that no matter how much we root for the contrary, there will always be those careless few that abuse the system, and no single person is exempt from doing so. We should stop expecting something new when we know that, sadly, it will probably never change.
We should be disappointed, but not surprised. At least not anymore.
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