Wednesday, February 04, 2009

This Week Hasn't Exactly Gone Swimmingly for Michael Phelps

When I first saw the picture over the weekend of Michael Phelps evidently smoking a bong, I was skeptical, if for no other reason than the fact that it came from a British tabloid. After all, these kinds of publications run stories like "I Gave Birth to Elvis' Two-Headed Love Child," so it was always possible that this one was a fake as well.

But as you probably know now, Phelps has acknowledged that the photo is real, and this brings forth a host of troubling questions: Should he be punished by the Olympics or swimming's governing body? What should his sponsors do about him? And of course, there's always the old favorite--What is an Olympic hero's obligation to society in terms of being a role model?

And now comes word that Phelps might face criminal charges in South Carolina if the sheriff in the county where the offense allegedly took place can prove so. I won't publish the name of the sheriff here, because it seems to me like he's just trying to get his fifteen minutes of fame, but it can be easily found with some quick Googling (and is very similar to the name of a fumble-prone former Dallas Cowboy).

As for my personal take, I'll have to admit that, at the moment, I'm sitting firmly on the fence on this one. I'm not an illegal drug user myself, and, as an educator, I certainly can't condone their use; that's my own sense of obligation towards being a role model for kids. But then, I deal directly with kids in my work, and I'm not so sure that such expectations should be forced upon people who are famous just because of some sort of exceptional athletic ability.

It should also be pointed out that Phelps has never failed a drug test in all his years of swimming, so this incident could be considered an anomaly, as opposed to being indicative of a larger problem. So I guess the question we're all wrestling with is whether or not the current marijuana laws are too harsh, and the opinions are all over the map:
  • A Dallas Morning News editorial points out that, while recreational pot use may seem harmless, an awful lot of people have lost their lives due to drug deals gone bad, killing by Mexican drug cartel members, and other aspects of the illegal drug trade.

  • In response to that editorial, readers responded, and they're divided as well: One thinks that we need to send a powerful message that illegal drug use will not be tolerated, while the other points out that legalizing pot would drive the Mexican cartels out of business. Meanwhile, a commenter suggests that perhaps prosecution of marijuana is a cash cow for the court system and various law enforcement agencies.

  • A Fox Sports editorial column notes that contain some teachable moments: First, that our role models aren't perfect, but flawed like the rest of us; and second, that role models should really come from friends, family members, teachers and other components of kids' immediate community, rather than sports heroes.
I still don't know what to say on this one, but I think it's a conversation that's worth having. What say you? Respond below in the comments.

UPDATE: First, Phelps has been suspended for three months by USA Swimming and lost one of his sponsors--Kellogg's--because of this mess. And a new column by Kathleen Parker brings up some good points:
Understandably, parents worry that their kids will emulate their idol, but the problem isn't Phelps, who is, in fact, an adult. The problem is our laws – and our lies.

Obviously, children shouldn't smoke anything, legal or otherwise. Nor should they drink alcoholic beverages, even though their parents might. There are good reasons for substance restrictions for children that need not apply to adults.

That's the real drug message that should inform our children and our laws, rather than the nonsense that currently passes for drug information. Today's anti-drug campaigns are slightly wonkier than yesterday's Reefer Madness, but equally likely to become party hits rather than drug deterrents. One recent ad produced by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy says: "Hey, not trying to be your mom, but there aren't many jobs out there for potheads." Whoa, dude, except maybe, like, president of the United States.

Once a kid realizes that pot doesn't make him insane – or likely to become a burrito taster, as the ad further asserts – he might figure other drug information is equally false. That's how marijuana becomes a gateway drug.

Phelps may be an involuntary hero to this charge, but his name and face bring necessary attention to a farce in which nearly half the nation are actors. It's time to recognize that all drugs are not equal – and change the laws accordingly.
I can't come down completely in favor of changing the laws yet, but, as I said above, it's a conversation that we as a society probably ought to have. Would it be better to regulate pot like alcohol--tax it, sell it only by prescription or from approved locations, etc.--or should the current laws continue?

1 comment:

John Guari said...

Really, marijuana is less damaging to people's lives than alcohol. Michael Phelps had a DUI at 19. It would be way more upsetting to the public and damaging for him at 23 to have another DUI than a photo of him consuming marijuana.

I don't think the decriminalization/legalization marijuana would be a bad thing. The government could tax it and would create at least some jobs as far as growing, processing and shipping.

On a funnier note, can you imagine the kind of Super Bowl marijuana commercials you might see?