Phelps' image goes up in smoke

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Michael Phelps was suspended by USA Swimming for three months Thursday for admitting he smoked marijuana at a college party in South Carolina.

The suspension means nothing – the world championships aren't until July anyway. The group's decision to withdraw financial support to Phelps means less – at this point, the swimmer has more money than the swimming body.

No, the suspension was about USA Swimming trying to win the public relations spin of a story that's barreled out of control since a photo of Phelps inhaling from a glass bong appeared in a British newspaper.

Earlier Thursday, Kellogg's claimed it wouldn't renew its deal with Phelps when that contract expires at the end of February. The company asserts that pot smoking is "not consistent with the image of" the cereal maker. Who knew cereal had an image?

That one will hurt Phelps in the millions. Of course, Kellogg's already made its money off Phelps last summer and in these economic times, dumping a big-money deal is sober thinking, even if the pitchman isn't.

USA Swimming did fine off Phelps too. Now both are saving a few bucks.

All of this mostly is people running from an image of Phelps that is no more accurate than the one everyone embraced last year. He wasn't some bit of human perfection in August. He isn't some degenerate now. He's just a guy who can swim really fast.

The Phelps on dry land was a marketing creation, little more than a character that his handlers knew America would buy, hook, line and sinker. Many Olympic heroes are the same; these games make up the most orchestrated sports event on the calendar.

In 2004, when soon-to-be gold medal gymnast Carly Patterson signed a sponsorship deal with McDonald's, she admitted she had eaten there only once in her life and couldn't name much of the menu. One of her agents nearly fainted at the admission.

With carefully crafted visuals, friendly media, fawning NBC profiles and perfectly-scripted commercials, you can make any Olympic athlete into anything these days.

Phelps is and was a legitimate sports star. He was exciting to watch, a nightly diversion during the dog days of August. He did the impossible – got crowded sports bars to hush up for the 200-meter individual medley.

That was Michael Phelps. That should've been enough.

Beyond that, with the "All-American mama's boy" talk, who knows what was and wasn't true? All we know is he isn't all that he was sold as. No one could be.

You can hardly blame him. He was just the guy in the middle. If he'd been honest about his faults, he'd been torn to pieces. Most everyone was willing to write off past mistakes, such as 2004 DUI, as a youthful transgression.

Phelps seems like a reasonably good person who just wanted to swim. There's no real evidence that he was particularly intelligent, heroic, generous or interesting – and none to say he isn't. He's probably just a regular, boring, flawed guy.

It was the interest of entire industries though – advertising, media, athletics – to make him out to be more than he really was. We're so desperate for such a person to showcase to kids that we'll fall for anything. They once sold Britney Spears as a conservative virgin, after all.

Phelps has called his pot smoking stupid, but it wasn't as stupid as thinking that he could still go to a college party, grab a bong and think no one was going to whip out a camera phone.

He smoked pot and now it's all raining down on him. His governing body and one of his chief sponsors are running from him, for reasons that might not be genuine. He'll get asked about it forever, although for the most part America would be willing to forgive or completely forget.

After all, in late October Santonio Holmes was cited for marijuana possession, admitted to the cops he smoked some pot in his car and was benched for a game by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Monday he was the grand marshal of the Disney World parade.

Parents have the right to be frustrated that this week they had to try to explain it to their kids. As if they weren't under assault enough, now Michael Phelps piles on? They worry that those very children will figure if this superman everyone worshipped for his work in and out of the pool is capable of smoking pot and winning eight golds, how bad could pot be?

But don't be angry with Phelps. Be angry that you again fell for the lie of the sports hero. With these athletes, forget what you're told about them. Believe only what you see – and then hope they don't test positive for steroids.

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