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Phelps – Cut Him Some Slack

New America Media, Commentary, Mark Schurmann Posted: Feb 06, 2009

Michael Phelps’ public excoriation has the sound and feel of Sarah Palin's vice presidential bid. I can almost hear her tapping into our puritanical inclinations by declaring, "Smoking marijuana isn't being an American like you and me."

American athletes seem to bring out our puritanical streak like no one else. Nathaniel Hawthorne would have had a field day writing about it.

Instead of Hester Prynne we have Barry Bonds, convicted in the court of public opinion for steroid use. Bonds’ scarlet letter "A" would be for the asterisk we've put after his name and achievements, a sentence to obscurity. Already, all references to him have been removed from San Francisco's AT&T Park.

The fact that Bonds still maintains his innocence just seems to damn him even more.

Admittedly, getting caught smoking marijuana seems less severe than possible steroid use – except, of course, if and when athletes decide there is nothing to apologize for.

American skier Bode Miller was photographed drunk at a party while participating in the 2006 Winter Olympics. Unapologetic, Miller was ripped by the press and disowned by his coach and team. Though a favorite to win, Miller failed to get a medal in any event, making him a loser as well.

Once a cover boy for Sports Illustrated, he's become a cautionary tale, not for excessive drinking, but rather his lack of remorse because of it.

Perhaps because of Miller's PR mistakes, not only has Phelps admitted to smoking marijuana—caught red handed by paparazzi as he was—but he has apologized to the nation as well.

What if he had maintained a right to privacy? In addition to the loss of endorsements, would he have been expelled from the U.S. swim team? Would he have been denied another Olympic bid? It’s certain he would have been punished in some way.

Apparently we expect superhuman virtues as well as superhuman efforts from our athletes.

It’s hard to think of an achievement as superhuman as what Phelps accomplished during the Olympics. Not only did he win an unprecedented eight gold medals, setting an Olympics record doing it, but he single handedly took on the over-all dominance of Chinese athletes.

Though the Olympics host country won more gold medals over all, Phelps stole the show, etching his name onto the 2008 Olympic Games, and our flag with it.

He was America's half-naked superhero who, after the games, put on his clothes, went to a party and got high. And we're offended by it. Why?

We should take our cue from the rest of the world. Retired soccer superstar Diego Maradona’s cocaine habit was almost as well known as his exploits on the field. Though the addiction almost killed him, fans around the world seemed to love him even more because or in spite of it.

In India recently, thousands of fans thronged the streets of Calcutta to greet him.

Imperfect heroes aren't unknown in America. Mickey Mantle was an alcoholic. Joe Namath was a playboy. Hall of Fame pitchers used grease to pitch faster and prolific wide receivers used glue to catch more footballs. Yet we honor the achievements and remember the excess with a wink and a smile.

As a role model, the only thing that should be a cause for concern for us is whether or not people—young people especially--can handle the enormous amount of work and pressure that went with Phelps’ achievement.

In light of that, we should cut him some slack.

Related Articles:

Michael Phelps: Poster Boy for Wheaties Eaters and Bong Users

Defeated Thai Boxer Best Epitomizes Olympic Spirit

The Future Clark Kent of Sports

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