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Does embattled swimmer Phelps deserve a break?

Controversy arises after picture emerges of Olympic gold medalist smoking marijuana.

Phelps

NEW YORK — A young man appears to be smoking pot at a party. Big deal, right? Our new president has freely admitted doing just that in his youth — inhaling, too — and it didn’t derail him one bit. So should we expect more of Michael Phelps?

It depends on what we want and expect our youthful role models to be: perfect, or flawed like the rest of us.

And so as the Olympic swimmer’s many corporate sponsors were wrestling with their options Monday, a day after an embarrassing photo emerged of the decorated athlete appearing to inhale from a bong, some were looking at the bright side.

“We should grab this teachable moment,” said Lisa Bain, executive editor of Parenting magazine. “It’s a good opportunity to talk to your kids about role models. They’re human. They’re not gods.”

“Any conversation you can have with your kids about the choices people make, especially those they hold up as role models, is a good thing,” Bain said.

To her and to many others, there’s no question that Phelps is a role model for young kids, as opposed to, say, a mere celebrity endorser. Only role models appear on Kellogg’s cereal boxes, for example. And that complicates the problems for this young man, whose journey to eight gold medals in Beijing last year captivated the world.

“Breakfast cereal — that’s really speaking to kids between 6 and 12,” said Marian Salzman, known as a trendspotter in the advertising industry. “He has big, important deals, in a terrible economy. This is just wacky.”

But that doesn’t mean Phelps, 23, doesn’t deserve a break, says Salzman, chief marketing officer of the Porter Novelli public relations firm. She blames his handlers, who should have done a much better job protecting him from the foibles of youth, from newly won freedom, and from piles of money.

“He’s probably a nice boy who didn’t get enough guidance,” said Salzman — especially after a drunken-driving arrest after the 2004 Olympics. “I think he accomplished that huge dream in Beijing, and then his people just relaxed.”

The Phelps affair is sure to revive the debate over whether athletes should even be considered role models. “I don’t think they are,” Salzman said.

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