Ten years ago, a photo that showed an athlete like apparently getting high at a party probably would have resulted in considerable fallout.
That might still happen to the athlete who has won the most gold medals in Olympic history, who has millions of dollars in endorsements riding on the outcome. But his admission that he used "bad judgment" has been greeted mostly with forgiveness, humor or a shrug of the shoulders.
Four of his sponsors - Speedo, Omega, Hilton Hotels and PureSport - released statements yesterday saying they still support him, even if they don't condone his actions, and will continue a business relationship with him. No sponsor has publicly tried to drop Phelps as an endorser. Even Phelps' Facebook page was bombarded with messages of support, with many of his younger fans expressing frustration than he even felt compelled to apologize.
That's frustrating to Dr. Gary Wadler, a professor of medicine at New York University and a key adviser to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), one person who isn't interested in seeing it so quickly dismissed. He said he was disappointed because he regards any use of illegal drugs as antithetical to the spirit of sports.
"For probably the most accomplished athlete in the history of the Olympics to be doing that, I found it very disheartening," Wadler said. "Any sanctioning aside, the message it sent is very sad to me."
Mike Gimbel, a substance-abuse expert who served as the Baltimore County drug czar for 23 years, said he has already grown a little frustrated with how casually some people are dismissing it as no big deal.
"The facts are, pot is the No.1 drug that sends kids to drug treatment in Maryland," Gimbel said. "It's really out of control because the drug has gotten so much stronger than it use to be. To make it that it's an issue about pot is the wrong approach, I think. It's not. It's an issue of Michael's judgment and decision-making."
Society's changing views
But for the most part, Wadler and Gimbel are swimming against public opinion.
"It's something that seems to happen almost every day to a professional athlete," said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing consultant for San Francisco-based Baker Street Partners. "For a 23-year-old kid who has been in heavy training for most of his life to want to blow off some steam, people are going to be pretty forgiving of that."
In part, that's a reflection of the way marijuana use is viewed by mainstream society today compared with the way it was viewed the past. It's still illegal, yes, but it's not exactly high on the country's list of potential sins.
A 2006 United Nations report found that more than 160 million people use marijuana annually, and a U.S. government survey found that 83 million Americans have tried the drug at least once. Since 1996, 13 states have legalized it for medicinal use.
Two of the past three presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, have admitted experimenting with it, and George W. Bush simply declined to answer questions about past drug use. Clinton received more derision for claiming he had not inhaled than for saying he had tried pot. Barack Obama later played off the line, saying: "When I was a kid, I inhaled. That was the point."
Some of this generation's most successful entertainers, from film director Judd Apatow to Phelps' musical favorite, Lil' Wayne, have laced their art with references to marijuana and the culture around it.
And then there are the hundreds of athletes who have either admitted marijuana use or been caught in possession of the drug. From Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Randy Moss, you could build a Hall of Fame of superstars who have been associated with pot. Santonio Holmes just caught the game-winning pass in the Super Bowl, three months after he was charged with marijuana possession.
Dorfman said most people will regard Phelps' actions as harmless or at worst harmful only to him.
"There are so many worse things you can do in public, things that affect other people," he said. "I think his DUI was much worse. That could've killed someone."
With two incidents now on his resume, Phelps could seriously hurt his marketability with a third offense, Dorfman said.
Phelps' citation for driving under the influence in 2004, which also came in the months following an intense Olympics, complicates the issue. This is his second public stumble while partying, and when viewed together, it raises the question: Does Phelps party too much?
It's a question some within the world of swimming have privately been asking for several years. Pictures of him in bars and at parties have been popping up on the Internet with increasing frequency in recent years. But at what point does playful fun become an actual concern?
"If you look at the numbers in studies, about 60percent of kids in the ninth grade have experimented with drinking and drug use," said Dr. James F. Mulligan, the executive director of Seabrook House, a nationally recognized inpatient drug and alcohol treatment facility in New Jersey. "When those kids turn 30 years old, between 12 and 22 percent have problems with addiction. ... It looks like [Phelps] handled it reasonably well, but only he and his family members are going to know if they should be worried about this guy. If someone continues doing it when they know it's wrong, then that's when they might have to ask themselves if there is a problem."
'By no means aberrational'
But if Phelps doesn't have a problem, is this all much ado about nothing? Most athletes take the Phelps approach to image repair and apologize for letting down teammates, fans and sponsors, which bothers Allen St. Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), who called the Phelps story "bittersweet" for the pro-pot community.
"The bitter part is the immediate denial and refutation of an activity that he probably enjoyed doing," St. Pierre said.
At the same time, the NORML director is thrilled to see images of high achievers smoking marijuana.
"It mainstreams the issue and highlights the fact that incredibly successful people, whether athletically or intellectually, are cannabis consumers," he said. "Had this happened 10 years ago, Mr. Phelps would have been in trouble with his commercial interests. Today, it's almost a badge of honor among people 25 years old or younger. Michael is by no means aberrational."
What's clear is that Phelps is still adjusting to the reality that after winning eight gold medals in a single Olympics, almost everywhere he goes, all the eyes (and cameras) in the room are going to be on him.
Before the Olympics, while having dinner with a reporter at his favorite deli in Ann Arbor, Mich., Phelps was asked whether he felt like he could still have a private life, despite his growing fame. He quickly acknowledged that he couldn't.
"I don't think it's possible," Phelps said. "Everybody knows everything about me. I have no private part of my life. It's just a part of what I do. You can't hide anything. Everyone finds out everything anyway. And if they don't, they just make something up, and no matter what you say, people believe it anyway."