More than 150 million Americans tuned into the Super Bowl on Sunday, most not caring that among the behemoths bouncing around the field, some surely had artificial, lab-produced fuel coursing through their veins, inflating their muscles, improving their performance.
Yet the finger-wagging that greeted us this week centers on Michael Phelps, who was caught on camera at a party, lip-locking a bong as if it were a first girlfriend. Think about that for a second: We're to be outraged because Phelps might've been partaking in something that actually hinders your performance, that has no effect on competition, that really has no impact on anything, except, perhaps, Phelps' pocketbook?
Let's be clear on this: What Phelps did was certainly stupid. But it wasn't shocking, and it wasn't worthy of outrage. In fact, it's hypocritical of sports pundits to shake our heads and scold Phelps for such a misdemeanor, yet turn a blind eye to infractions and sports-world felonies that actually matter.
Consider this: As he does every year before the Super Bowl, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell fielded reporters' questions for an hour Friday. There wasn't a single inquiry into steroids, human growth hormone or drug testing. The NFL catches so few drug users that we're left with only two possibilities: In a sport of giants, every one of them is clean, or the league's policing needs some work.
Pardon me if I see the leaked photo of Phelps and feel disappointment rather than anger.
Let's deal specifically with Phelps' actions for a bit. Just as he did for 1 1/2 weeks in August, he has managed to make global headlines.
"Drogen-Gerucht um Goldfisch," blared the Berliner Kurier. "Phelps fuma cannabis, ecco le foto," trumpeted the Quotidiano Nazionale. And "¡Oh no! Captan a Michael Phelps consumiendo drogas," cried SonFamosos.com.
We've been down this path before, of course. In August 2004, Phelps set the Olympic pool on fire. In November 2004, he was cited for driving under the influence. He messed up, disappointed fans and promised to do better. Flash forward four years. In August 2008, he made the Olympic water boil. In November 2008, someone snapped a photo of Phelps swallowing a bong at a party. He messed up, disappointed fans and promises us he'll do better.
He just hasn't learned. It's like every four years, he's determined to do something that boggles our minds, in the pool and then out of it.
And then, just as now, Phelps leans on youth as a crutch.
"I'm 19," he told us then, "but no matter how old you are, you should take responsibility for your actions, which I will do. I'm extremely sorry for the mistake that I made."
"I'm 23 years old," he says now, "and despite the successes I have had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner that people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry."
He reminded us of his age, I suppose, because he's supposed to receive a free pass until he's 25? Or perhaps 30? Or maybe when he's collecting Social Security?
It was like we went to sleep with Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year and woke up with High Times'cover boy, an Olympian whose 12,000-calorie daily diet is apparently all Funyuns and Twinkies, whose gold-medal lung capacity suddenly seems a lot more impressive, all things considered.
Since Phelps has returned from Beijing, his party-boy actions have been popular topics for blogs and gossip columns, from Las Vegas to New York, from South Carolina to England. He's Paris Hilton with a Speedo deal, and not for a second has he tried to hide any of this. So why should anyone now be surprised that such a photo might surface?
It's a trap we fall into. We know someone as an athlete; we think we know them as a person. Fans project their own expectations and ideals onto a superstar such as Phelps, overlooking the fact that he simply is who he is. He's capable of poor decisions. He's careful and steady in the pool, really a man among boys. But out of it, he has shown again that he can be a boy among men.
It really is too bad. From Baltimore to Beijing, Phelps' face decorates computer backgrounds and bedroom walls of young boys and girls. You can't endorse everything on the store shelves, repeatedly proclaim your desire to draw attention to your sport and proudly cast yourself as a role model if you aren't ready for all that comes with such a responsibility.
He has different handlers, but it's easy to see whom Phelps' professional evolution and image has been patterned after.
An older generation grew up with another endorsement-laden icon. We wanted to be like Mike. Today, some still do - they want to be like Michael - and that's OK. Phelps isn't a bad guy. He might not make the kind of decisions you wish for your son or daughter, but he still competes the right way.
Let's not confuse ourselves: In the sports world, partying is not a hanging offense. And anyone who misguidedly thinks marijuana is more harmful than steroids is smoking something much stronger.
There are plenty of worse things out there worth all the ire and fury you can muster. But judging by the eyes and hearts that clung to Sunday's Super Bowl, undeterred by suspicions or doubts, we're willing to ignore the elephant in the room, preferring to focus on a pesky fly.
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