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Booby Prize

By Russ Smith | Posted 11/17/2004

It’s not as if the public needed another reminder of how desperate, and exploitive, the national and local media is for any story that reeks of sensation and scandal. Yet when the details of Olympic swimming star Michael Phelps’ arrest for drunk driving were reported last week, you’d have thought Maryland had its very own Scott Peterson/Elizabeth Smart/Chandra Levy drama to gnaw over at the water cooler.

Maybe that comparison to the above reality soap operas is hyperbolic, but even a person as disinterested in Phelps’ athletic achievements and private life as myself couldn’t escape the “shocking” revelation of his crime. When I shower in the morning, my wife is tuned to NBC’s Today Show, and while that’s punishment enough, the WBAL local newsbreaks at the top and bottom of the hour last week were highlighted by Phelps’ mishap in Salisbury on the night of Nov. 4, an ample dose of local drama.

But if you choose to read The Sun, the 19-year-old Phelps was front and center, although not in the same proportion as when he won six gold medals in Athens last summer. Normally, I’m a fan of sports columnist John Eisenberg, but his Nov. 10 column on the dustup made me feel as if it were a Sunday and I was in church squirming during an especially sanctimonious sermon.

Granted, Phelps isn’t legally allowed to drink alcohol, and no responsible person condones driving while impaired. Running a stop sign, whether sober or intoxicated, is a serious legal infraction, and fortunately no one was hurt. In fact, I’m of the opinion that youngsters—at least those who live in parts of the country where a vehicle isn’t necessary to transport them to work or school—ought not be allowed to obtain a driver’s license until they’re 21. In any case, Phelps was in the wrong and deserves whatever penalty is normally administered in thousands of similar arrests.

But give the kid a break. Sure, he’s a celebrity now, making a lot of money from endorsements, but Phelps, who has lived in a swimming pool since before adolescence, can’t be accused of a slacker’s work ethic. He defied the odds that beat the vast majority of gifted athletes and reached the top of his profession, a feat that ought not be sullied by a dumb mistake. It’s a story that deserved minimal attention, three or four paragraphs, buried in the sports pages for one day, and that’s it.

Yet Eisenberg wasn’t so forgiving. He writes: “Until now, when people said of Michael Phelps that he wanted it all, they meant he wanted seven gold medals or as much Olympic success as possible. But it turns out he also wanted it all in a different way. He wanted the money and adulation he surely deserved as a reward for his years of hard work, and he also wanted to cut loose a little without paying a price.

“Sorry. Phelps, at 19, can’t have it both ways.”

Again, I’m not defending the swimmer for hopping in his SUV after throwing back a few drinks—exactly how many hasn’t been made public—but reading the suddenly pious Eisenberg you’d think Phelps had been arrested in a heroin den or accused of raping a minor.

Even though Phelps immediately issued a statement of apology, cooperating with the jackals who cover sports and scandal, that wasn’t enough. His coach, Bob Bowman, told ESPN magazine’s Eric Adelson for a Nov. 8 online story, “At first, I was kind of angry. I wanted to make sure he was OK. Then I got really angry. He had everything going for him. Such a lapse in judgment. I’m sorry for everyone who supported him, which is everyone. He let himself down; he let us all down.” Talk about overreaction.

The real story, not surprisingly, is the potential downside for the array of corporations who traded on his success—with Phelps’ undoubtedly enthusiastic cooperation—and who now worry that the public will be traumatized that the young man on the Wheaties box and model for Speedo swimming trunks had one too many and got busted.

Last Friday, in another Sun story about the incident, Phelps told reporter Sara Neufeld the incident is “going to be with me every day for the rest of my life.” That’s part of the script, whether Phelps realizes it or not, but how’s he going to feel when something truly tragic—as inevitably happens to everyone—shatters his life?

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