Opinion: Why Such a Fuss Over Michael Phelps’ Pot Photo?

Great opinion piece by John Leicester of the Associated Press today on this topic.

Here’s a link to more information about this story, as well as the photo in question.

From the article:

So Michael Phelps seemingly puffed a pot pipe on his own time. Bad boy.

It would have been a bigger deal had he illegally used marijuana to help his record-breaking Olympic performance in Beijing last summer — toking on a water pipe to cope with the stress of the Water Cube.

But no, Phelps was stupidly — perhaps venally — photographed out of competition at a party apparently taking a misguided step down a path trampled by at least two U.S. presidents and the Woodstock generation that taught its kids that the ’60s were swinging and that weed, for some, was part of the fun.

Yes, drugs ruin many lives, and a South Carolina sheriff is doing his job investigating whether charges are warranted. Phelps escaped with little more than a slap on the wrist from his governing body, USA Swimming. Suspending him from competition for three months still leaves him time to sharpen up for July’s world championships. By then, a lot of this smoke and fire will surely have blown over.

The questions Phelps’ fans and sudden new foes (fair-weather friends?) need to be asking are:

  • Why are they so disappointed?
  • Do such errors, however felonious or fragrant the fumes, deserve such a mountain of fuss?

The problem here is not Phelps, but the golden pedestals we build for him and other athletes simply because they swim fast, hit balls out of the park or bend free kicks into goal. By turning sports-people into super-heroes, we’ve set ourselves up for the fall.

Stadiums are more packed than churches. Many spend more on season tickets than they do on giving to charity. Count the number of pages devoted to sports in your newspaper, then count the number for foreign news. Do Manchester United or the Los Angeles Lakers really deserve your attention more than Gaza and global warming?

If anyone has a drug problem it’s us, the sports fans addicted to seeing how far the human body can be pushed, especially when it’s not our own.

Of course, it’s preferable if athletes don’t take performance-enhancing drugs or ruin their young bones and sinews by being pushed beyond the limit, ending their careers before they’ve barely begun. Most definitely, it would be better if sportsmen and women had well-rounded personalities and educations as developed as their muscles, and were not thrown into pools as youngsters and told to swim up and down all day.

But the sorry truth is that many fans don’t really care, as long as their teams and stars give them that buzz of triumph. If, perhaps even when, Phelps scoops up yet more gold medals in 2012 at the London Olympics, his What a Dope! photo in the British tabloid News of the World will be just a hazy memory for those who again will cheer him on. Chest-thump anyone?

Perhaps we’re the potty ones to have become so enamored and expect so much of people whose job happens to be kicking a ball around, getting it through a hoop or, in Phelps’ case, giving fish a run for their money. Surely, there must be more worthy role models out there.

The argument that Phelps is held to higher standards than, say, Janis Joplin, simply because sponsors have paid him megabucks does not hold water either. Sponsors throw cash at people like Phelps because we’re dumb enough to lust after and buy the products our ‘sports heroes’ endorse.

That joke is on us.

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