Barney Fife – or at least someone who acts suspiciously like him – is on the prowl in South Carolina, searching for the bong that Michael Phelps made famous. The marijuana pipe must be what the Richland County sheriff is after, because the evidence inside it has long since gone up in smoke.
The good sheriff believes Phelps should pay for his crime of smoking from a pot pipe during a college visit, as the photo of him in a British tabloid would suggest. Apparently eight gold medals don’t carry a lot of weight in some parts, nor do apologies carefully crafted by public relations people.
The idea of Phelps in handcuffs is silly, of course. There aren’t enough jails to hold the millions of Americans who believe smoking pot is no worse than drinking alcohol and who imbibe on occasion themselves.
Besides, there’s nothing the authorities in Richland County can do to Phelps that can compare to the damage already done.
A few months ago he was hosting “Saturday Night Live” and being fawned over by Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes.”‘ Companies were lining up to make him their pitchman, and his agent suggested that Phelps could end up earning US$100 million in endorsements.
He was so big that he blew off the front of a Wheaties box to sign with Frosted Flakes instead.
Now he’ll be lucky to be on the cover of High Times magazine, which, coincidentally, is promising to display the “most mind-blowing glass bongs and pipes on earth” in its March issue.
Sure, his advertisers dutifully lined up behind him this week with carefully prepared statements of support. They promised not to drop Phelps, and said they hoped he learned his lesson and will become a model citizen.
But images are everything, and the image of Phelps with a bong pressed up against his face will live in people’s minds long after they’ve forgotten the image of him with eight gold medals around his neck. Mention his name, and he’ll be the Olympian who likes to party, not the swimmer who won the most medals ever.
Phelps himself said Wednesday that he knows he will have to live with what he did, but hopes he can grow from it.
“By no means is it fun for me. By no means is it easy,” he told The Associated Press after a swim in Baltimore.
Unfortunately for Phelps, becoming a celebrity sometimes means paying a price. He should have already figured that out, after getting busted on a drunken driving charge at the age of 19, just months after winning six golds in Athens.
You can’t get millions from sponsors like Visa, Kellogg and watchmaker Omega, have your face plastered all over national television every day, and then expect no one to pay attention to what you do in your personal life. And if you’re going to do things in your personal life that you shouldn’t be doing, make sure you do when in a place where nobody’s got a camera.
Phelps can certainly be forgiven for blowing off some steam after years of doing almost nothing except train in the pool. What’s troubling, though, is that the people around him did nothing to rein him in while knowing what happened after his last Olympics.
He’s basically a 23-year-old who, for all his world travel, has led a cloistered life that has been centred, almost entirely since grade school, on trying to go as fast as he could in a pool. Other than his freakish ability to swim fast, there’s not much terribly interesting about him, as anyone who watched the painful “60 Minutes” piece now knows.
That didn’t stop him from becoming a national hero, thanks to his amazing races in Beijing and the relentless cheerleading of NBC. But the window of opportunity for cashing in was always going to be narrow, even before the photo was snapped. The American public doesn’t care much about swimmers for the most part, and the glow from Beijing has been fading.
Sponsors say they remain on board, but my guess is it will be a long time before another Phelps commercial airs, if ever. There’s not a legitimate company in America that would even consider using him now as a pitchman.
His decision to light up has cost him terribly, damaging his reputation and pretty much killing his potential future earnings.
There’s not much more the sheriff in Richland County can do to make it worse.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org