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Phelps’ status takes another hit

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–“I recognize the seriousness of this mistake,” Olympic champion Michael Phelps said, according to a report on CBSnews.com. “I’ve learned from this mistake and will continue learning from this mistake for the rest of my life.”

If you assumed the aforementioned quote was uttered by Phelps following the recent revelation that he was caught smoking marijuana at a party back in November, you’d be wrong. In actuality Phelps’ words of contrition actually came just over four years ago when he pled guilty to the charge of drunken driving. He was 19 years old at the time.

You see, Michaels Phelps’ recent marijuana “mistake” is not the first time the Olympian “role model” has acted out in less than championship form.

In November 2004, Phelps was stopped by a Maryland state trooper for running a stop sign. The trooper indicated that he detected a strong odor of alcohol coming from the vehicle Phelps was driving. Though Phelps denied he had been drinking alcohol, a field sobriety test confirmed the Olympic champion was indeed drunk. The state trooper stated that Phelps responded by saying, “I know I am sorry [for lying]. I was just scared because I have a lot to lose.”

Phelps’ defense attorney at the time said, “Michael knows he’s a role model and he knows he made a mistake.” In exchange for a plea of guilty, Phelps received 18 months probation. Under the terms of the probation, he had to report to a supervisor once a month by telephone. The Maryland State Attorney indicated that normally a probationer would have to report in person, but because of Phelps’ travel an exception was made.

Fast forward four years. Phelps visited the University of South Carolina in November, attending a football game and then a fraternity house party. While at the party Phelps was photographed smoking a marijuana pipe. The photos were posted on the front page of a British tabloid. As a result, Phelps admitted to smoking the illegal substance, marijuana.

“I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment,” Phelps said in the statement. “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 a 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.”

No one but Phelps, his family and his agents can know the depth of the sincerity of his apology. His words of contrition could be just an effort to save as many endorsement deals as possible, which reportedly earn him several million dollars annually. That said, at least he did not try to obfuscate the issue by saying he did not inhale.

Kellogg’s has already announced it will not continue its endorsement deal with Phelps. A company spokesman said that Phelps’ recent behavior is not in keeping with the company’s image. Any company that is forking over big bucks to Phelps has every right to expect him to behave in a fashion that will not reflect poorly on the company.

Phelps has earned his endorsements due to his incredible accomplishments in the sport of swimming, as well as his carefully crafted image as a nice, upstanding young man -– a positive role model.

Role models are not for pudgy middle aged men like me. Role models are for young people — elementary school kids and teenagers. There are enough bad role models for young people today. What is desperately needed is someone who is positive — someone many Americans hoped Phelps would be.

The loss of endorsements might be the least of Phelps’ worries right now. Richland County, S.C., Sheriff Leon Lott has said that he would charge Phelps criminally if he can prove the swimmer had smoked marijuana in his county.

While Phelps’ marijuana mistake is bad enough, it is compounded by his earlier drunk driving arrest. Someone has said that character is defined by what we repeatedly do. Two huge mistakes may not indicate a pattern, but they certainly indicate a problem.

Phelps’ image problem can only be solved by concentrating on his character. Character, it has been said, is who we are when no one is looking — or in Phelps case, when he thinks no one is looking.

By abstaining from drugs and alcohol and strongly speaking out against their use, perhaps Phelps can redeem his image. However, he is now batting with two strikes against him. One more and his image and endorsement deals will be out.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • Kelly Boggs