USA Swimming said late last night that it has decided to suspend Michael Phelps from competition for the next three months as punishment for a photo that was published in a British tabloid over the weekend that appeared to show him smoking marijuana.
The organization's board of directors voted on the decision, saying the intent was to send Phelps a "strong message" that it did not approve of his behavior. USA Swimming also said it is withdrawing financial support from Phelps during the suspension, a mostly symbolic punishment. The sport provides stipends for Olympic-caliber athletes in case they cannot afford to train and work at the same time.
"This is not a situation where any anti-doping rule was violated," the organization said in a statement, "but we decided to send a strong message to Michael because he disappointed so many people, particularly the hundreds of thousands of USA Swimming member kids who look up to him as a role model and a hero. Michael has voluntarily accepted this reprimand and has committed to earn back our trust."
The suspension will prevent Phelps from competing as planned in a meet next month.
USA Swimming wasn't the only one expressing disappointment with Phelps yesterday. Although his corporate sponsors have mostly stood by him since the photograph was published in the News of the World, Kellogg Co. said it would not renew its partnership with Phelps after its deal with the swimmer, 23, expires at the end of this month. The two parties did not have an agreement to renew the deal before Kellogg's decision.
Phelps' management company, Octagon, said he understood the two decisions:
"Michael accepts these decisions and understands their point of view. He feels bad he let anyone down. He's also encouraged by the thousands of comments he's received from his fans and the support from his many sponsors. He intends to work hard to regain everyone's trust."
Before yesterday, Phelps had mostly received support from his sponsors and from the sport's governing bodies. Speedo, Omega, Visa, PureSport, Mazda and Hilton Hotels issued statements of support earlier this week. Subway, which signed Phelps to an undisclosed long-term deal in November, has declined to comment on whether it will continue to use him as a pitchman.
Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, told The Baltimore Sun that the suspension would cause Phelps to change his plans for returning to competition somewhat, but that he would choose a meet at some point in the spring and return to the pool after the three-month suspension. Phelps had originally planned to swim at the Austin Grand Prix from March 5 to 7.
"I think it sends a message to Michael, and we're certainly going to abide by it," Bowman said. "He's eager to be back in training, and looking to move forward."
Marc Schubert, USA Swimming National Team head coach and general manager, wasn't even aware of the board of director's decision until The Sun informed him of it last night. He said he hopes it will serve a purpose, but ultimately "that's going to be up to him.
"The whole situation has obviously been disappointing, but Michael is very disappointed in himself," Schubert said. "It's been a real tough time for Michael. He's kind of thrown himself into his swimming lately, which has been a good thing because I think he has his friends on his swim team, and I think he's been introspective about the situation. He's taken a good look at himself and realizes his mistake."
On Wednesday, Phelps told The Sun that the intense public scrutiny this week has him mulling whether he wants to compete at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, a decision that could have millions of dollars at stake, not just for Phelps but for the television network NBC. Schubert said he knows what an intense competitor Phelps is and suspects it will be hard for him to stay away.
"I think without a doubt he's annoyed by intense amount of scrutiny," Schubert said. "It would be tough for any of us to live with. Hopefully as time goes on, I think generally most people will accept his apology. When we're not seeing this on Sports Center, I think he'll probably give [the Olympics] some thought. He'll approach it a day at a time. I was happy to learn he was back at practice today."