So as you might know, Olympic gold medalist and freakish man-fish Michael Phelps was photographed indulging in some wacky weed last week. Phelps has since owned up to his misdeed and apologized, a refreshing change of pace from the usual indignant denial approach most public figures tend to use in such situations, so we should be done with it, right? However, as noted by William at Shakesville, despite its propensity for playing down illegal activities engaged in by athletes, particularly those involving violence towards women, the media just can’t let it go. Newspapers across the country have been running opinion pieces either speculating how much the incident is going to negatively impact Phelps’s career (very little so far, it would seem) or shaming him for breaking the hearts of his young fans all over the world. David Ramsey of the Colorado Springs Gazette wrote a particularly self-righteous, finger-waving editorial that’s so grave in its judgment of Phelps’s behavior you might have thought he got caught driving around with the dismembered body of a Girl Scout in his trunk.
Phelps, Scherr told me in August, had captured the imaginations and hearts of nearly all Americans. During brutal economic times, Scherr said, Phelps provided drama and hope. He made Americans feel good.
But there’s a flip side to this shared joy.
Now, Phelps fills us with shame.
At press conferences, he talked constantly about his mom, and we all fell for this All-American mamma’s boy. Millions of America’s young women, including my daughter, developed crushes on the swim champ.
He was the poor kid from Baltimore who lifted himself with endless, torturous hard work. He was one of us, even if he seemed half-fish/half-man.
This homogenized image of Phelps is just a mirage. Behind the facade, a flawed young man was hiding.
And this young man likes to party.
Wait, wait, what? A 22 year-old man likes to party? Alert the presses, as clearly this is news that will render the very fabric of American values to pitiful shreds. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t your early 20s precisely the right time to be partying? I’d be alarmed if I ran into a man in his 30s or 40s who had not yet sown his wild oats, as I would keep wondering at what point he’d implode and surround himself in nothing but pussy and beer. The entire tone of Ramsey’s editorial is like that, sanctimonious, judgmental, unforgiving, suggesting that a single photograph of Michael Phelps sucking on a bong is enough to destroy his image and overshadow his athletic accomplishments forever. Phelps has betrayed his fans, Ramsey claims, crushing their hopes and dreams for someone to which they once looked up to as a hero.
Before I go on, please allow me this disclosure: I have never smoked marijuana. Not once. When it comes to recreational drug use, I am a complete and utter square. I don’t have any sort of strict anti-drug stance, I’ve just never had a burning desire to experiment. That being said, I invite you all to join me in sending David Ramsey some wooden planks so he can build a bridge to get over the fact that Michael Phelps smokes weed. After that, he can build a smaller bridge on top of that one so he can get over himself. Seriously, he “fills us with shame”? It’s pot, it’s not like he was photographed smoking meth with Amy Winehouse. Athletes, whether high school, college or pro level, are constantly given a pass for bad behavior, coddled, worshiped and never expected to answer for their actions. There are still those in the media who insist Michael Vick was treated far too harshly for mistreating animals, that his involvement in dog-fighting was not borne of cruelty but “cultural,” and not worthy of a jail sentence. Shakesville quotes an article pithily claiming that those who keep bringing up Kobe Bryant’s rape charges in 2004 are “childish” and “out of touch.” Yet right now Phelps is getting tarred and feathered as some sort of deceptive junkie who can never again regain the trust and admiration of his fans.
Other articles earnestly give suggestions on how you should explain to your children, undoubtedly devastated by the news, about what happened to Phelps. I didn’t bother reading any of them, because I doubt any of them suggest what I would say, if my kid gave a shit about Michael Phelps smoking marijuana, which is “Well, people make mistakes.” Oh, and “If something like this is going to ruin your image of someone, you must not have admired them as much as you thought you did.” And further, “Marijuana is illegal, and you’re probably better off without it, but it’s hardly the worst thing anyone can do with their lives.” How long are we supposed to keep convincing kids that smoking weed will lead you down a path of destruction, that people who indulge are worthless losers, when alcohol and prescription painkillers destroy more families and end more lives than marijuana ever will? Considering how many adults indulge in marijuana, how long can we keep forcing the message that pot smokers are inherently “bad” onto schoolchildren, when many of them are their own parents?
Finally, at what point are we going to stop leaving it up to strangers, athletes, actors, musicians, etc. to be “heroes” for our children? Just because a whole bunch of people admire Michael Phelps for his ability to swim really fast doesn’t mean he’s saddled with the impossible responsibility of never, ever doing anything wrong. How do people like David Ramsey have the audacity to insist that Phelps has a duty to his fans to never get caught doing anything dumb, to conduct himself at all times in a manner befitting that of an American hero? We haven’t even been able to get that out of our last couple of presidents. Do we really think kids are so impressionable that they’ll believe that in order to be a great athlete you must start smoking marijuana, preferably as early as possible, because that’s what Michael Phelps does? When I was around 11 years old my favorite celebrity was Simon LeBon of Duran Duran. I loved him, I loved his music, one wall of my bedroom was completely plastered with pictures of him. However, I also knew he had a reputation for snorting coke off the asses of European models, and you know what? It didn’t bother me. I had no desire to emulate that behavior, not as a kid and not as an adult, but I was able to separate it from his image as a performer. You see, kids are not nearly as stupid and critical of someone’s personal failings as adults are. Some of them are even capable of understanding that adults sometimes make bad decisions, but that it doesn’t necessarily make them bad people. They’re certainly capable of forgiveness, which is something far too many adults lack, and is far more embarrassing and shameful than some young guy indulging in a little smoke.