Commentary

A teaching moment for this swim dad

Originally Published: January 28, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

I came downstairs Monday to find my two sons doing what they do most mornings: watching "SportsCenter."

The Super Bowl dominated the show, but they took wide-eyed note of what was crawling across the bottom of the screen: the news about Michael Phelps admitting that, yes, it really was him in that instantly infamous picture, smoking a marijuana bong.

[+] EnlargeMichael Phelps
AP Photo/Reed SaxonMichael Phelps' influence on kids has gone beyond the pool, especially after his record performance in Beijing.

In our house, this was crashingly big news. We're a swimming family. My three kids all swim competitively year-round, and they all think the world of Phelps.

Or at least they did until Monday morning.

"He's dumb," said my 11-year-old, Clayton.

My kids went with me last summer to Omaha, Neb., for the U.S. Olympic trials and were thrilled to see Phelps compete in person. They raptly watched his epic, eight-gold-medal Beijing Olympics performance on TV, while I was there covering every swim in person. My 9-year-old daughter got Phelps' book for Christmas and devoured it. We have the Phelps 2009 calendar.

We're far from alone. If you go to age-group swim meets, you see the kids wearing Phelps caps. You see the kids who stand on the side of the block, just like Phelps. You see the kids slap their arms on their sides before a race, just like Phelps. You see the kids who mimic his breathe-every-stroke butterfly.

No swimmer has ever had such an impact on America's youth. And now that impact has instantly swung to the negative.

Only time will tell whether it can swing back. He got a free pass with Madison Avenue and the court of public opinion on his first "youthful transgression," when he was arrested for drunken driving at age 19 shortly after winning six gold medals in the 2004 Olympics. What happens this time?

What Phelps was photographed doing should not brand him for the rest of his life. It is not unusual behavior for a 23-year-old. But Phelps left the usual life behind a long time ago.

Normal 23-year-olds can smoke pot without it creating an international firestorm. And there undoubtedly are hundreds of college and professional athletes who have smoked -- and inhaled -- very recently. There are probably several dozen Beijing medalists who can be added to that list as well. (A good many swimmers over the years have been known for their insane work ethic in the pool and equally insane party ethic out of it. Especially out of training, as Phelps had been from August until late January.)

Most of the pot-smoking athletic population have had the good sense or good fortune not to get caught. And a good many prominent athletes have done far worse than getting high.

But normal 23-year-olds don't own a jillion gold medals and world records and massive endorsement contracts that are in no small part tied to Phelps' marketability with wide-eyed children yearning to wear Speedo swim suits. Sponsors like the picture of smiling Michael with eight gold medals around his neck a whole lot more than the picture of Michael earnestly working the pot pipe.

The age and impressionable nature of Phelps' marketing constituency carries with it limitations that he clearly was not ready to live with.

When you enter into Phelps' level of celebrity, you must be amazingly naive or remarkably reckless or cripplingly impulsive to assume you can go to a college party and lip-lock a bong and not get photographed in the act. And that the photos wouldn't get out. And there wouldn't one day be hell to pay.

It is proof -- and this is a good thing to remember -- that being one of the greatest athletes in human history does not preclude him from being a stupid 23-year-old. The world is full of them; they all just happen to swim slower than he does.

So even though Phelps hasn't done himself any favors with this PR firestorm, he might have done a favor to swim parents like me.

This is a perfect opportunity to teach kids that people put on pedestals sometimes fall off. That heroes have foibles. That foibles are understandable, even if they're not laudable. And that role models are best chosen from those you know well, as opposed to those you only know through a TV screen or a book or a carefully glossed corporate image.

Maybe I should thank Phelps for providing a teaching moment to a swim dad in a quandary over how to handle this news.

But he also should know he has paid a price with some of the kids who idolize him. As my daughter Brooke announced Monday afternoon, "I like Katie Hoff better."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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