February 4th, 2009
Despite a massive media focus on the event, there’s not a lot one can one say about a photograph of Michael Phelps smoking marijuana from a bong.
Did he do so on his own time? Definitely. And is there a near-100% likelihood that Phelps’ was and is entirely in control of his athletic performance? Absolutely. Will this matter to some people? Not at all.
South Carolina, after all, is pondering filing criminal charges.
Putting aside the criminality of smoking marijuana… there is no question that this is a hit to Phelps as a revenue-producing business. Whether fair or not, Phelp’s representation and sponsors are placed in a tough spot: kid-focused McDonald’s and Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, for example, have both counted on Phelps to project a wholesome, healthy All-American image. Yes that’s right kids, your gold-medal idol is smoking grass. Weed. Ganja. He’s inhaled. And it looks like he’s done it before, too. Yikes.
Phelps has issued a statement and apology using the “I’m young and dumb” approach and, as Fox Sports has already reported, this event is likely to fade in the memory of the public. The question is whether sponsors will stick with him and help mend his reputation permanently.
The Mojo believes that Phelps’ fortunes are likely to survive long-term if this side of him never sees daylight again. But if there’s more to come – if this episode turns out to be only Strike 2 following his arrest for drunk driving in 2004 – his sponsorship potential may not recover for decades, if ever.
UPDATE: A version of this post is available on www.reputationgarage.com, where a frustrated fan imagines a hypothetical “Dear America” letter from Phelps: “I work my a** off 10 months a year. It’s that hard work that gave you all those gooey feelings of patriotism last summer. If during my brief window of down time I want to relax… you can spare me the lecture.”
The Mojo could definitely understand, even sympathize, with Phelps if he’s having these thoughts. There are, however, two relevant concepts here: (1) When the “institution” in question is an individual, it can be challenging to separate the person from his or her behavior. As a matter of cold, hard cash, Phelps damaged his sponsorship machine. It doesn’t mean he is a “bad person.” (2) Life is not fair. The bank bailout debacle has, in particular, brought out the fact that how society measures behavior – whether it be personal indulgement or taking “deserving” bank executives to Vegas – is not always rational or fair. If there is heat around an issue (like illegal drugs), people may vote in a way that is not entirely logical. An institution can subsequently correct its behavior, or continue on and accept the consequences.
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