Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What Is the Future for Michael Phelps?

I was last moved to write about Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps as part of a previous posting Why We All Need Balance. While it was wonderful that he was receiving the world’s adulation at the end of the Olympics, fame is fleeting and everybody sooner or later becomes yesterday’s news. What then?

When I wrote the piece, I assumed that he was retiring from competitive swimming. After all, he had nothing left to prove and was to become independently wealthy from endorsements. And staying in shape for world-class swimming means giving up most of his social life. He already did that throughout his youth to get to where he is. So who needs all of that?

But perhaps to keep his endorsement value from falling too quickly, he made an appearance in London as part of the Olympic Closing Ceremonies to announce that he would compete there in the 2012 games. So while being an active swimmer instead of a retired swimmer has its endorsement advantages, it also brings with it the continued public scrutiny. So when he attended a college party at the University of South Carolina and inhaled from a marijuana bong, someone was there to snap his picture with a cell phone camera and sell it to a tabloid. That he still declared himself an active swimmer made the whole affair far more newsworthy than if he had decided to retire and leave the limelight.

So what do we make of all of this? I guess it has a lot to do with ones attitude toward marijuana and other drugs. On one extreme are those who believe the over-the-top anti-marijuana film
Reefer Madness to be a serious educational movie. (For those who are interested, the complete movie can be viewed by opening this link.) These same people would probably applaud the arrest of eight people in connection to that bong photo as in this Wall Street Journal op-ed piece Arrest Michael Phelps!

The sheriff's office in Richland County, S.C., is investigating a report -- prompted by a photo of the event published in a British tabloid -- that Olympic hero Michael Phelps smoked marijuana there. It's possible Mr. Phelps will be prosecuted. That's right: For those of you who don't know, marijuana is illegal.

Today, not only is it illegal to smoke marijuana, but, most people are surprised to learn, the number of arrests for marijuana use and possession are increasing. In that bastion of liberal values and political views, New York City, close to 400,000 people were apprehended for marijuana misdemeanors in the decade ending in 2007. This was almost 10 times the number arrested in the previous decade. In 2007 alone, nearly 800,000 Americans were arrested for simple possession of marijuana, according to FBI statistics.
To make things worse:

83% of those arrested in New York City in the last decade were African-American or Latino. This occurred even though these groups, while underrepresented among college students, don't actually comprise the majority of drug users.
And speaking of Latinos arrested, there is the example of comedian Tommy Chong who was sentenced to nine months in a federal prison for
selling marijuana bongs.

On the other extreme is a marijuana advocacy group calling for a
boycott of Kellogg's for dropping Phelps as an endorser.

The leader of one of the biggest legalize-pot organizations, the Marijuana Policy Project, called Kellogg’s action “hypocritical and disgusting,” and said he had never seen his membership so angry, with more than 2,300 of them signing an online petition.

“Kellogg’s had no problem signing up Phelps when he had a (previous) conviction for drunk driving, an illegal act that could actually have killed someone,” said Rob Kampia, the group’s executive director.

But what really sets me off is the talk on sports shows comparing what Phelps did to New York Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez in recently admitting that he had taken performance enhancing steroids. To me there is no comparison.

As opposed to A-Rod, Phelps did not take a performance enhancing drug to cheat. In addition, he is not even presently competing in his sport.

While taking a libertarian stance questioning whether steroids should be illegal for adults to take (it’s their body and they are taking the risk), I fully endorse sports leagues and associations cracking down and banning steroids. The reason is simple. Steroids are dangerous and athletes should not be forced into using them to be able to effectively compete with those that do take them.

As for Phelps, he has some decisions to make about his future. Staying active in swimming up through the 2012 London Olympics will mean more endorsements assuming he receives no further damage from this recent scandal. But this all has its price. In addition to all of the training, there is the scrutiny of his private life that endorsers will want in exchange for their dollars. After all, endorsers want to put their money into whom they feel are positive role models. But maybe Phelps just wants to be a regular 23-year-old guy instead of somebody that people want to see walk on water.

Not surprisingly, Phelps has now recently announced that
he is undecided about competing in the London Games. Who can blame him?

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