For Michael Phelps, another behavior issue

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Michael Phelps is at least as tech savvy as most people in his generation. He certainly knows that 1) almost every person his age carries a cellphone and that 2) nearly every one of those phones has a camera.

Yet Phelps, surprisingly, either did not know about or chose to ignore the ramifications of all those camera phones: A celebrity whose tens of millions in sponsorship money depends on image cannot do anything stupid in public, because someone will have taken a picture or video of the indiscretion.


And not all those people will feel inclined to let what happens in Vegas stay in Vegas.

So it was that a picture of Phelps sucking on a bong showed up in Sunday’s editions of the low-rent British tabloid News of the World in a story headlined, ‘WHAT A DOPE.’

Such pipes generally are used to smoke cannabis in the form of marijuana or hashish.

We don’t know (yet?) what was in this pipe, which the newspaper said was being used during a Nov. 6 house party at the University of South Carolina.

But we do know this is a real picture (not something digitally created), because Phelps’ management company, Octagon, did not claim otherwise when it issued a statement for him Sunday morning.
Phelps’ statement:

‘I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I’m 23 years old, and despite the successes I have had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner that people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public -- it will not happen again.’

But that doesn’t deal with at least two issues.

1. If there was cannabis in the bong, Phelps has used a drug on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list. Though cannabis is a banned substance only if used in competition, we are talking about image here.

2. If it was cannabis, this is not the first substance case involving Phelps, and the other was more serious, even if it involved alcohol rather than an illegal drug. In December 2004, he got 18 months’ probation after pleading guilty to drunk driving. He was just 19 when that occurred in Maryland, where it was also illegal for Phelps to have been drinking.

While it is hardly a surprise to find marijuana being used at a college party, it is illegal. For Phelps to put himself in a position that someone can photograph him doing whatever he was doing in South Carolina shows that his maturity level has yet to catch up to his bank account. Just like his having been photographed a few months ago fondling strippers in Las Vegas -- nothing illegal about that, but probably not a picture that delights the companies he endorses.

Bad judgment is not a crime, but repeated bad judgment carries its own punishment. Yes, Hollywood stars act far worse, but Phelps owes his celebrity to the special glow that comes from being an Olympic champion.

No wonder the U.S. Olympic Committee said Sunday it was ‘disappointed’’ in Phelps’ behavior and that he ‘failed to fulfill (the) responsibilities’’ that come with ‘setting a positive example for others.’'

Phelps had become a star after winning six gold medals (and eight total medals) at the 2004 Olympics. He turned into a megastar after the eight in Beijing.

Sponsors accepted Phelps’ apologies after the 2004 incident, especially because Octagon wisely got out ahead of the story by having him call several U.S. reporters to express his contrition.

Who knows if they will be so forgiving this time?

-- Philip Hersh