Saturday, February 7, 2009

Athletes Are No Role Models

By Evan Weiner

February 6, 2009

10:30 AM EST

(New York, NY) – So Michael Phelps was caught inhaling weed, what is the big deal? If Michael Phelps wasn’t a great Olympics performer and was Mitchell Phelps or Michael Phillips and was smoking marijuana in a college dorm and a friend decided to take a picture of him, there would be a big laugh and life would go on. No one would ever know and Richland County (South Carolina) Sheriff Leon Lott could continue to investigate other criminal actions.

If Phelps is arrested, and that seems to be a big if, he could face up to 30 days in jail and a $570 (US) fine since the possession of marijuana in Richland County is a misdemeanor. Lott has to determine where Phelps alleged criminal activity took place although the British publication where the Phelps inhale pictures appeared; the News of the World claimed Phelps was visiting the University of South Carolina at the time he took a hit.

In case people don’t know, particularly college presidents or chancellors along with college and university reps and advisors who tell parents that their schools don’t allow drugs on campus, this type of behavior goes on all the time, just like it did 40 years ago and just like it did when Reefer Madness was released in 1936.

Michael Phelps is now paying the price and the sports moral authorities, sportswriters are doing their best to make sure Phelps understands that he needs to be put in his place. People like USA Today’s Christine Brennan who is concerned that Phelps is “having so much trouble balancing his life as both a role model and playboy.”

Brennan brings up the fact that a 23-year-old Phelps already had a driving under the influence charge against him in 2004, pictures with Las Vegas strippers after he won the gold in Beijing.

The writer is worried about Phelps future and, of course, how is giving advice on how Phelps can fix his problem, the playboy problem.

Other sportswriters have chimed in and it is basically the same drivel. Athletes are not role models except in a few exceptional cases like one-time NHL player Adam Graves who was truly dedicated to helping others. Athletes are human beings and are unfairly held to a higher standard or are they?

Phelps is being held to a much higher standard than say the New York Jets Shaun Ellis who is largely unnoticed as just another defensive end in the National Football League. Ellis was arrested in December for marijuana possession along with driving without insurance after he was picked up for speeding. His penalty from his employer, the New York Jets? None, he kept playing.

The Pittsburgh Steelers James Harrison is getting star treatment after his Super Bowl touchdown and being part of this year’s championship team. Harrison is being lauded for his perseverance after being cut by both the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens numerous times but last March he was arrested and charged with simple assault and criminal mischief surrounding a domestic dispute with his girlfriend, The charges were dropped in April after he completed anger management and psychological counseling. Pittsburgh needed Harrison but Pittsburgh didn’t need wide receiver Cedrick Wilson anymore. Wilson was let go last March a day after he was charged with assaulting an ex-girlfriend. Wilson’s production had declined.

Sports is filled with bad behavior, but if an athlete can produce he will be pardoned for whatever felony is committed. Exhibit A is Adam “Pacman” Jones. Steve Howe was suspended seven times by Major League Baseball for drug use, but he had a valuable left arm and stuck around the game until he was no longer productive.

Depending on the situation, if a player produces, anything goes. Phelps just smoked weed and apparently didn’t hurt anybody last November at the University of South Carolina. The judge and jury in this case was not law enforcement officials, that might eventually come to pass and Phelps could face a misdemeanor charge and could lose United States student loan funding, if convicted, although that doesn’t seem to be a problem for him, but the USA Swimming and his marketing partners.

The USA Swimming has suspended Phelps from competition for three months because of his “tokin.” Phelps has also lost the group’s financial support for three months, although Phelps certainly can afford to pay for his own training. The USA Swimming group decided to take strong action “because he disappointed so many people, particularly hundreds of thousands of USA Swimming member kids who look up to him as a role model and hero.”

Again that role model/hero platform comes up again. Is Phelps really a hero because he won gold medals?

Phelps marketing partners are having a tough time because of that picture of Phelps with a bong. The International Olympic Committee, Speedo and Omega are fine with him, Subway and Kellogg’s aren’t. That is the problem with athletics today. The Olympics, the Super Bowl and other major sports events are sports events and an athlete should not be judged on marketability. The Beijing Olympics were a marketing disaster except for Phelps. He is the only one who came out of the Games with a pitchman’s persona.

The Olympics is no longer just about sports. NBCUniversal, the American media company that picks up a good chunk of Olympics costs, needs to create heroes so that people will be interested in watching the contests in its multi-platform assortment of over-the-air TV, cable TV and broadband presentations. NBCUniversal sells personalities, not the contests. Marketers are in the same boat, they are paying big money for the Olympics logo and need heroes to help push sugar water (soda), hamburgers, watches, breakfast cereal and everything else imaginable including a program that can help you learn another language quickly.

If Phelps, who will be 27 in 2012, decides to give the London Olympics a go, his DUI, the Las Vegas strippers pictures and the inhaling will be forgotten. Someone else will be pushed into the marketing savior spotlight by then because Phelps will be old news. It is just how it is today in sports. New heroes will emerge and grab the marketing dollars because someone thinks athletes should be held to the role model standard.

Babe Ruth was no role model in his day although Babe’s most valuable contribution may not have been saving baseball from the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal but his willingness to try a new cancer treatment, teropterin. Ruth was a guinea pig for chemotherapy. Teropterin would eventually morph into Methotrexate, which is used in cancer treatment.

Athletes are no role models, they are just human beings like everybody else who have in some cases better hand and eye coordination than 99 percent of the population or have extraordinary physical skills. Phelps was acting like most college students and the uproar over him inhaling is absurd. He did break a law but he didn’t beat up anyone, bilk people for millions of dollars or start a war. He is no role model though and athletes should be judged on their athletic performance solely.

The whole idea of an athlete as a role model/pitchman needs to be revisited and dropped. Parents, teachers and others who are there on a day-to-day basis should be children role models not some image created by sports leagues, sportswriters, sports radio talk show hosts, TV sports news readers and marketers because Michael Phelps, Derek Jeter and others are not substitutes for parents, teachers, clergy and others like youth coaches, piano teachers and tutors.

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