Had Phelps been sold differently, fewer waves could have been made

The Baltimore Sun

Michael Phelps remains embroiled in Bong-gate. Kellogg will drop him as a corporate pitchman, and the Subway sandwich chain appears poised to do the same. USA Swimming announced Thursday night that it has suspended him from competition for three months. The general public is, well, understandably disappointed that everybody's all-American hero has stumbled for the second time in his storied career.

There is a saying in the celebrity world that the media love to build you up and then tear you down, but in this case, Phelps did it all to himself.

Or, more accurately, the phenomenon that is Michael Phelps - which includes Phelps, his family, USA Swimming and the Octagon marketing group - chose that path and probably should have seen this coming.

It's a pretty simple equation. If you're going to create an image that a celebrity is going to have to inhabit for the rest of his career and maybe the rest of his life, you've got to be sure that the celebrity in question is both willing and capable of pulling that off. Phelps obviously is neither, though that doesn't make him a bad fellow. What it makes him is badly mismanaged.

Don't misunderstand. I can already feel the daggers coming out from all the people who think I'm looking for a way to get him off the hook for a couple of really stupid mistakes, the first of which - driving while impaired in 2004 - was more irresponsible and dangerous than what is now the most famous bong hit in history. There is no excuse for driving drunk, smoking marijuana is illegal, and Phelps was old enough in both cases to know better. He screwed up twice, and that has cost him a great deal of money and prestige.

He isn't the first high-profile athlete to get himself into a fix like this, but he is the rare athlete able to elicit this level of shock and disenchantment from one photograph of him doing what countless college students in countless frat houses do every weekend night all over America. That's because he was presented to the public and corporate America as a squeaky-clean paragon of virtue who would never, ever do such a tawdry thing as act like an actual 23-year-old.

His handlers made the colossal mistake of using the Tiger Woods marketing model instead of the Michael Jordan model. Woods is an obsessive competitor who is content to lock himself away on his own Florida peninsula and come out only to score dramatic victories and film Nike commercials. He was re-created by his marketing team in his own image, so he doesn't have to make any extra effort to live up to it.

Jordan was marketed as the all-time clutch performer and a great guy, but not as Mr. Perfect. He had a few skeletons in his closet, but he overcame them by being the coolest basketball player on earth and not allowing himself to be pigeon-holed by his corporate sponsors.

If Octagon had it to do over again, I'm pretty sure it would still have sold Phelps to Speedo and Omega, but not to a company that makes sugary cereal for kids. It would have sold him with that spiky hairdo he was wearing when he was photographed leaving his workout Thursday ... to companies that are looking for somebody a little more cool than the guy on the Corn Flakes box.

If a shirtless Phelps were modeling Guess Jeans in GQ and hawking Harleys and $200 sunglasses, he would still be getting called out for his foolish behavior, but he wouldn't have spent the past week suffering the slow drip of public and corporate righteous disapproval.

Phelps still could have promoted the benefits of swimming and successful goal-setting to a generation of adoring kids but not set himself up to fail as their perfect behavioral role model.

Plenty of athletes survived worse to be very successful corporate front men. Kobe Bryant is very much in demand. So is Ray Lewis (who made like a ballet dancer in a Super Bowl commercial that aired Sunday).

Phelps will survive to shoot commercials another day, but he has a smaller window to exploit his success than the typical superstar athlete, and that window has a big crack in it right now.

It didn't have to be that way.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM).

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