Prominent TV commercial actor and occasional swimmer Michael Phelps publicly apologized Sunday for smoking weed. Phelps was compelled to apologize not because he ripped his first bowl and felt just oh-so awful afterwards, but because some British newspaper published a photo of him smoking out of a bong. As it turns out, weed-smoking swimmers — at least unapologetic ones — lack the ability to sell inappropriate beachwear to old, fat Europeans.
The photo and subsequent admission of guilt have spawned the obligatory backlash from various news and sports media squares — the main objection being that Phelps is a role model and smoking the reefer is a very un-role modely thing to do. Yet, I’d like to point out that even before the bong incident, a kid who modeled himself after Phelps would (a) spend the vast majority of his non-sleeping life swimming back and forth in a vat of chlorine and gross YMCA germs, (b) eat a painful 12,000 calories of crappy food everyday, (c) get a DUI at the ripe old age of 19, (d) date a Vegas cocktail waitress and (e) single-handedly ruin an entire episode of Saturday Night Live.
But reality doesn’t really matter when it comes to role models. Here are some insights, both light and heavy, considering the notion of the American Golden Boy:
1. People only care about swimming for approximately 45 seconds every four years, and this probably helps Phelps’ case. I mean, Kobe had to play road games while he was still on trial and widely considered a kinda-rapist, but Phelps has four years to let this thing blow over by default.
2. Phelps’ sponsor Omega, a Swiss watchmaker, dismissed the incident as a “non-issue,” which, for the record, seems to be the Swiss’ stance on everything, including World War II.
3. Speedo finds itself in the precarious position of having to stand by Phelps no matter what he does. As the only important company in a sport with exactly one marketable asset, Speedo’s survival is disproportionately dependent upon Phelps’ ability to woo the 12-and-under crowd — who, as a point of fact, are the only people that truly give a shit about swimming. And because his fans are nearly all little kids who will be heartbroken by the fact that their “hero” smokes weed, the bong photo hurts Phelps in this respect. But show me a little kid who knows what a bong is, and I’ll give you a million bucks. Moreover, can you show me a little kid who knows enough misconceptions about marijuana to conclude that blazing really is that tarnishing? Therefore, the only way the bong photo will hurt Phelps is if the parents of all these swim-tots find smoking weed deplorable enough that they ban their kids from adoring the superstar. Which is a tough break for Phelps considering American parents are so lame.
4. If you had to put odds that either Phelps or Jamaican sprinter and possible Half Baked-extra Usain Bolt would be photographed smoking weed, what would they have been? I’d say somewhere around Bolt - 420420420420420. If Usain does roll up the occasional blunt, which is likely considering something like two-million percent of Jamaicans blaze, that means that the fastest humans in the world on both land and water smoke weed. That’s funny for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is the possibility of potheads sincerely citing Phelps and Bolt as examples of how weed should be legalized because it makes you sick-nasty at sports.
5. The media dog pile that’s taken place over the last couple days is undoubtedly fueled by society’s contempt for swimmers. Let’s be honest, if anyone who went to high school was forced to define male swimmers in a single word, wouldn’t that word be douchebags? They were the guys who used the word “son” a lot and made sure you knew they practiced this morning at 5 a.m. They were the guys who got really drunk every weekend then tried to hookup with someone else’s girlfriend. Maybe constant exposure to chlorine makes you fall in love with yourself. The arrogance is palpable. They’re like rowers but without body hair and trust funds.
6. How is it possible that this sort of thing doesn’t happen to every athlete, actor or celebrity under the age of 25? Facebook has not only enabled us to systematically organize, sort and comment on embarrassing pictures, it has created a situation where our generation feels obligated to photograph any embarrassing act. Now add this tendency to the terrifyingly intrusive, celebrity-obsessed culture in this country and you have a situation where any transgression will certainly be chronicled for the world to see. So where’s the picture of Kevin Durant smoking the Pineapple Express cross joint? Where’s Hilary Duff laying in a pool of her own vomit? Where’s Shia LeBeouf passed out drunk, with stuffed soggy French fries up his nose and a lit cigarette wedged between his lips?
7. For some reason the vast majority of commentary has called Phelps’ decision “stupid.” In what way is it stupid? It would be stupid to blame yourself for having a stranger take a picture of you unknowingly. It’d be stupid to live like a priest for fear that Visa won’t bankroll your strip club visits if you get caught living like a regular human. It’d be stupid to think about the little swimmer boys and girls in Thousand Oaks and Westchester who adore you while you’re having a good time at a party in South Carolina. And, dammit, it’d be stupid to think that taking the occasional bong rip makes you a bad guy and the object of national criticism. I’ll save you the always-annoying LEGALIZE IT! rant here, but the man was smoking weed at a private party. It’s not like he was shooting up heroin then taking a joyride through a school zone.
To me, it’s obvious that Phelps isn’t actually sorry. So why apologize? Imagine if Phelps came out and said, “Yeah that’s me in the picture, it’s not that big of a deal. Someone can smoke weed and still be congratulated for his work ethic, bitches. Get over it.” The media coverage would be a more substantive discussion about marijuana and America, not an obligatory mish-mash of condemnation and corny weed jokes.