Sunday, February 8, 2009

Where There's Smoke, There's Ire

"You're still my boy Mike everyone will always be behind you %100 of the time. Don't smoke in public anymore only do it with people you know you can trust and in privacy. God bless you and good luck swimming." --An unedited comment from Michael Phelps's blog post apologizing for smoking marijuana.

I read a statement not too long ago saying, to some effect, that there is no such thing as objective journalism, that a writer has to have some opinion on a given topic. Before I get into the main ideas of this essay, I'm going to share my opinion, and hopefully my forthcoming assessment will reflect it: I have nothing, personally or socially, against the recreational use of marijuana. People I love and admire use it, and while I don't, it has no effect on my view of a person. This said, even if I did have a negative view of it, I wouldn't be able to get upset over the recent Michael Phelps "scandal." At this very moment, whether the moment is my writing of this sentence or your reading of it, there are probably thousands of twenty-three year olds smoking weed on a college campus. Of course, there's almost a definite chance that none of them are Olympic athletes, and none of them were literally the face of America during the summer. Yes, Phelps did something illegal (I'm not getting into a legalization argument, I'm mentioning this merely as a technicality), but it would be no different if he were nineteen and photographed doing shots of Jager. What does bother me is the backlash. He's never failed a drug test, yet he's been suspended from competing for three months, and Kellogg's has canceled its sponsorship. A columnist for The Seattle Times claimed that his children, all swimmers, now hold Phelps in a lesser light. What does bother me is that this seems to be about race just as equally as it is about public image.

Last year, during the NBA playoffs, Josh Howard of the Dallas Mavericks admitted to smoking marijuana during basketball's off-season. He too never failed a league-mandated drug test. He faced backlash--from sports radio and television hosts, not the majority of the American public. He was criticized--not so much for the admission, but the fact that it came during the playoffs, with his team down two games to none. The overall vibe was that his statements, which seemed to be forgotten quickly, would have garnered less attention had they been made in December instead of April. This leads to two troubling hypotheses: One, that the public assumed, because Howard is black, that admitting to smoking weed was normal; and two, since Howard is not a superstar, there was no need to call that much attention to the subject. I feel that some (not all) of the national disappointment in Phelps stems from his public image as the All-American Champion, race aside. The Phelps/Howard views would apply to Michael Jordan and Steve Kerr of the Chicago Bulls's championship teams of the late 1990s. If someone had photographed Jordan smoking a bong, the backlash would be just as intense as it has been to Phelps. If Steve Kerr had admitted to smoking in the off season, it would have received roughly the same amount of attention as Howard's admission. Since Kerr was never a perennial all-star, it doesn't make for compelling news discussions.

Familiarity has been the key to the criticism of Phelps, and he has nobody to blame but himself. Even if the photograph had not been taken, the news would have gotten around, since he's arguably one of the most famous people on the planet. As is the case with Josh Howard, the level of fame should not have anything to do with the attention, just as race shouldn't. There are just as many white drug users as black ones, just as is the case with any other product, be it tobacco or alcohol. Phelps and Howard are superior athletes, but they're humans, too. Not to bring up the distant past, but Jason Kidd's wife-beating got even less attention, which is all the more infuriating.

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