Michael Phelps becoming his own worst enemy

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Jim Baumbach
Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Seemingly every minute for two weeks last summer, all we heard about was Michael Phelps, his great pursuit of a record eight gold medals at the Olympics and his potential for enormously wide-reaching commercial appeal. Rarely, if at all, was it ever mentioned that at age 19, this guy received a drunk-driving charge.

We all make mistakes, and life is all about second, third and fourth chances. But looking back on Phelps’ drunk-driving charge and the way it magically disappeared into the sunset, perhaps Roger Clemens and his advisers and all future athletes and commercial spokesmen could learn a lesson in damage control.

The best thing to do in the immediate wake of controversy—in this case for Phelps, a photograph recently emerging of him appearing to smoke marijuana from a bong—to save your commercial appeal more than anything else, is to admit your mistake, say you’re sorry so that America can move on and we can erase that moment of public embarrassment from your Wikipedia page.

It worked the first time for Phelps, but now comes the true test, considering this is his second strike.

We’re not the judge or jury, and neither are you. In the big world of commercial moneymaking—the world in which Phelps was estimated to one day compile more than $100 million in endorsements—the people who decide his fate are Nike, McDonald’s, Gatorade and Visa. It is they who continually decide if Phelps gets a second, third or 10th chance to sell their product, despite his transgressions.

The problem here is that the person put on the pedestal is too often not the real person, hence why it’s called a commercial—a paid endorsement of the product. We all know going in to commercials that just because we see Phelps eating Taco Bell or Subway on TV doesn’t mean he frequents those joints.

What was it about Phelps that made him so marketable, that made multimillion-dollar companies drool in the wake of his eight-gold medal performance over the prospects of having him pump their product? Surely it was the way his story captured America during those two summer weeks.

But it’s important to note that his story was told to the American public by NBC, which paid big bucks to earn the rights to air the Olympics. It’s in their best interests to pump up Phelps to create big ratings, therefore making it easy to ignore the drunk-driving charge on his record.

In the grand scheme of Phelps’ feat, the drunk-driving charge was not a big part of the story. Not by a long shot. But the fact is, that transgression is a part of the story, whether the people who benefit from his success admit it or not, and therefore it cannot be ignored. If anything, you could make the case that the fact that he overcame that incident en route to winning his eight golds made his performance more impressive.

But as the days, weeks and months passed since the Olympics, there has been so much talk about Phelps’ commercial appeal potential. His agent proudly suggested on “60 Minutes” that Phelps could make $100 million in endorsements.

Phelps has admitted that his first call after his drunk-driving charge was to his agents, because he knew they would be irate with him. No doubt Phelps heard similar sentiments from his representatives after the controversial photograph came out.

Think of the money this kind of thing could cost you in commercial endorsements!

If that’s the first response, our sports world is in a sad state. And another reminder that Clemens should have just said he was sorry, and he’d be getting ready for spring training with the Astros right now.

Last updated: 9:44 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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