The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

Michael Phelps is only human after all

In a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, “Weekend Update” anchor Seth Meyers had a novel suggestion for parents who don’t know what to tell their kids about Michael Phelps’ use of marijuana: “Just say ‘You can [too], right after you win twelve Gold Medals for your country.'”

Joking aside, though, the uproar from the American public over a personal decision made by the Olympic hero deserves a closer look: do we really have any right to bash Phelps for what he himself has called “regrettable”? Doesn’t he have enough to worry about without being told that he owes it to his fans to never make a mistake?

Give the guy a break. Despite what his feats in the swimming pool might suggest, he is, after all, human.

I might even understand the public outcry if Phelps played for a major league team. Guys like Ricky Williams, Todd Bertuzzi and Alex Rodriguez, though referred to as “pro athletes” in the popular lexicon, are really something different.

They are professional entertainers, and as such, their relationships with the fans who cheer them on are a vital part of their value. When Williams announced publicly that he will never stop smoking marijuana, when Bertuzzi violently attacked a defenseless opponent in a hockey game, and when Rodriguez chose to take performance enhancing drugs, each did significant damage to that relationship.

Furthermore, when an athlete such as A-Rod is being paid a quarter of a billion dollars to play a game, it’s not out of order to ask him to set a good example for the kids while he does it. A diminished reputation directly affects entertainment value, and that, literally, is the bottom line in professional team sports.

Phelps, though, is an athlete in the purer sense of the word. He competes for his country every four years, but more often, he competes for himself. For the most part, he has only himself to answer to and only himself to depend on, and his personal choices should be his business.

That’s not to say that he is exempt from the consequences his decisions bear. When Kellogs announced that they would not renew Phelps’ endorsement contract due to his behavior, they were well within their rights. As was USA Swimming when it decided to suspend him for three months; these organizations have professional standards, and Phelps, basically an employee of both, should conform to them or be punished.

It is not, however, his duty to conform to any standards placed upon him by the American public or swimming fandom. They may choose to support him or not, but either way, it is not to them that he owes his success.

When Phelps makes a decision that he knows could affect his health, his reputation and his earnings potential, he is the one that will have to deal with the results. In this case, Phelps has admitted that he made a mistake. He’s right about that, but it’s a mistake no worse than many of his critics have also likely made, and few have faced a backlash as severe as what Phelps has received. Surely, he will learn from it, and his reputation, with time, will recover.

So if you find yourself wondering what to tell your children when they ask you about Michael Phelps’ mistake, consider a response more rational than the one that Meyers proposed: tell them that Phelps is a great athlete, but he’s also human.

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