Thursday, February 05, 2009

Free Michael Phelps

Oh, come on, now . . .

So the great swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, was photographed "using" marijuana at a college party somewhere near the University of South Carolina campus last November. So the British tabloid, News of the World, published this "astonishing" picture -- the paper's description, not mine -- just a few days ago, and wondered if this meant the "end" for Phelps's "career," a career, that as far as I can tell, is swimming in competitive meets that generally do not offer prize money. So Phelps might lose upwards of a $100 million in endorsement contracts, paid to him by companies that sell cereal, phone service, swim suits, credit cards and banking services.

So what?

Horror of horrors . . . Michael Phelps, all of 23 years old, "using" marijuana! Get him off the cover of Sports Illustrated . . . now! No more Wheaties for you, Mr. Phelps, because you are not the type of "image" that Kellogg's, the corporate foods giant, wants to present to the public. And how will the young swimmers who idolize Phelps ever figure out whether to apply for a Mastercard, VISA or American Express card without his Olympian guidance? Then there is the huge, huge question facing all children about to take their first plunge into a pull this summer or the competitive high school swimmer who wakes up at 5 a.m. to get in that practice time before school starts, and then do it all over again that afternoon -- what kind of bathing suit to wear now that Phelps has sullied the Speedo brand.

From a purely personal and selfish perspective, if Michael Phelps's fall from grace means that fewer fat Israeli men will show up at the JCC pool this summer in their bikini-bottom Speedos, one good -- actually, great thing -- will have come from all this.

Only somewhat more seriously has been watching the reaction of the moralists in the conventional news media, whether from the world of sports or general punditry, light into Phelps as if he's just blown up the Empire State Building or taken a Catholic school women's field hockey team hostage to make them his sex slaves. The Kelloggs executives who don't want Phelps hurting their company's image? Let's search their browser histories and audit their corporate servers to see who's been surfing porn sites, shopping on-line, emailing funny and not-so-funny forwards, planning Evites and doing any number of things not in their job descriptions. Perhaps some are even regaling each other over lunch with drinks -- during the workday -- about their business trip escapades. You know, the "drinking" heroics, the 100 mile rule, the in-room porn bill they've figured out how to hide from the accountants. And you also know damn well that not one of them would turn down the chance to smoke a joint if only they knew how to get one.

And the journalists who wax one about Michael Phelps's obligation as a role model? Are these the same ones who think that Barry Bonds should be in the Hall of Fame? Has anyone else noticed that on the same day the Phelps photograph went public a Mt. Everest worth of documents was unsealed describing the alleged drug use of Barry Bonds throught the latter, allegedly steroid-driven part of his career? Remember Wade Boggs, the great hitter who played for the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees during the 1980s and 1990s, and was often mentioned in the same breath as Ty Cobb and Ted Williams as possessing the greatest eye ever at the plate? Do you also remember Margo Adams, his "road wife" for many of those years? Yep, yep, yep . . . the makers of "Big Love" didn't have to explore the Mormon community for their series. They could have simply followed Boggs around for 1o or 15 years.

Or Roger Clemens.

Or Ray Charles.

Or Magic Johnson.

Or Louis Armstrong.

Or Duke Ellington.

Or Paul McCartney.

Or Dizzy Gillespie.

Or who-the-hell-knows how many other professional athletes, entertainers, artists and other road warriors who, by the very nature of what they do, attract the interest of men and women who don't feel terribly bound by the ethics of marriage?

Sanctimonious fist-pounding on morality by people who have all fallen off the ethical and legal wagon at some point -- and I put myself in that category of imperfect people, hence my reluctance to offer the same sort of sanctimonious judgment on the Michael Phelps of the world -- ranks right up there in credibility with politicians who decide that another politician's behavior is corrupt, unethical or hypocritical. Listening to their ill-informed rants and reading their holier-than-thou criticism of Michael Phelps or Barack Obama or Al Gore or any other public figure or official who has admitted to smoking marijuana would be comical if the consequences for pot smokers weren't so serious. Anyone, it seems, who has ever smoked pot or still does here and there isn't a "social" smoker "responsibly" enjoying a therapeutic weed, like the Scotch drinker or brandy drinker. He isn't relaxing with friends, like wine drinkers, whose cultivation of social status through snobbery is inverse to the egalitarian nature of marijuana use. She isn't just "freshening up" a Sunday brunch like the hostess with the mostess who unveils a Bon Appetit-approved sparkling beverage or Vodka-infused fruit drink. He or she is a "pothead" or "bongmeister" or "stoner" or something else just as categorically irresponsible. So that makes every man or woman who unwinds with a couple of drinks at the end of a workday an "alcoholic," right? Or every group of guys gathering for a Saturday afternoon of football armed with suitcases of beer a bunch of drunks? Or a person who needs to "blow off some steam" by going out to "pound down" some shots? Is that person a "beer" or "Jack Daniels" user?

Get it?

Michael Phelps was certainly stupid for putting himself in a position, as a businessman, to be photographed doing something that is illegal, just as the falling-by-the-dozen Masters of the Universe are stupid for continuing to spend boatloads of cash on luxuries for themselves as their companies continue to beg for and accept taxpayer funds to keep them afloat. He was stupid like the Detroit auto executives were stupid for flying in on private jets to ask Congress for money to rescue their companies from their stupid, short-sighted and selfish decision-making. He was stupid like any employee of a company that has a drug-testing policy would be to use illegal drugs or drugs obtained illegally (someone else's Xanax, Vicodin, Adderall, etc.).

Dumber than all that, though, is our nation's continuing idiotic, counter-productive and hypocritical prohibition of a drug that is so widely used that it's more common to find someone who has never used it than someone who has. Thankfully, the camera phone wasn't around twenty or thirty years ago when those of us near a certain age were far less discreet when we decided to protest the nation's oppressive drug laws through civil -- and always enjoyable -- disobedience. One piece of advice, Mr. Phelps -- save what's left of your money for your own house. Ownership has its advantages.

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