Let's add a distinctly different tone to the pious near-hysteria swirling around our latest "fallen role models," superstars Michael Phelps and Alex Rodriguez.
Many in the national media reacted with condescending, moralistic verbosity to the photograph that showed Phelps apparently smoking marijuana, and to Rodriguez's admission that he took steroids from 2001 to 2003.
Excuse me for not joining the tsunami of outrage against the Olympic swimming icon or the baseball superstar. Excuse me for not seeing this as yet another indication our sports heroes no longer are worthy role models. Instead, let's look at these situations for what they are.
Phelps, three months after winning his unprecedented eight gold medals in Beijing, goes to a party at the University of South Carolina. There's a nice, big marijuana pipe. Everybody's taking a turn. No big deal. So what's wrong with joining in the fun?
One yahoo, probably resenting Phelps' amazing lung capacity, whips out his cellphone and takes a quick shot. Two months later, it turns into an international wildfire of headlines, columns and righteous indignation. Phelps freely admits to making "a mistake" and promises it won't happen again. Still, that one photograph costs him a three-month suspension from USA Swimming (just symbolic) and the loss of his Kellogg's endorsement. None of that will cause any pain for the guy commanding more than $100,000 just to make single appearances.
Does this really mean thousands of little swimmers across America and the world now will be inspired to try a little weed, just because Phelps did? I don't think so.
I do think Phelps was less than smart to show his hell-raising side among so many strangers, far from his Baltimore home or his Michigan college surroundings. But if somebody could take an honest poll of Olympic athletes, past and present, asking how many let their hair down especially in the letdown months after any Olympiad the "yes" answers would add up to a majority, perhaps overwhelming.
Phelps, in fact, has history. About two months after the 2004 Athens Olympics, he was arrested for DUI in Maryland (his breath test produced a .08 reading) at the tender age of 19. Given that, and other reports of him carousing in recent months, he should consider learning to control himself better. It doesn't seem to be a problem when he's training.
The sponsor part is different. When any athlete represents a national company, that means acting responsibly. Phelps' actions were sufficient for any sponsor to back off, especially in this economy. That's a lesson learned, but he's still a 23-year-old multimillionaire who simply must realize he has to grow up and settle down now.
Besides, we have bigger fish to fry. Like baseball players, and not just A-Rod, or A-Fraud, A-Roid, A-Hole or whatever you want to call him.
It's old news that more than 100 major-league players tested positive for steroids in 2003, back in baseball's "don't ask, don't tell" days of denial. It's also no surprise Rodriguez was on that list. He's in tap-dance mode now, insisting he has been clean since 2004. With a more poignant admission, he actually could have picked up more sympathy.
Instead, the damage is done. A-Roid fell into the same trap as so many other baseball players during the period of roughly 1995 through 2003. Rules were lenient, enforcement was totally lacking, and management was looking the other way.
Nobody's feeling badly for A-Fraud now. He knew what he was doing. What he didn't know then, but surely must now after seeing others like Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Roger Clemens humiliate themselves, is that nobody yet has made the Hall of Fame after being exposed as a drug user and/or liar. And just as Barry Bonds likely is doomed to losing his stature as the sport's home-run king, A-Roid faces a similar fate and public scorn for the rest of his career.
So it's basically a free pass for Phelps, but not for A-Rod. That must be the difference between being a party animal and taking steroids.