Michael Phelps, A Tarnished Role Model

February 3, 2009 · Print This Article · Email This Post

Olympic Gold Medalist and Swimmer Michael Phelps Takes a Toke from a Bong at a University of South Carolina Party

Leave it to all-American athlete Michael Phelps to screw up “the perfect storm” of advertising opportunities. The swimmer, who’s won 14 gold Olympic medals — including a record eight at the August 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China — had another recent photo op. But this time, it was a picture of him taking a hit off a bong at a University of South Carolina house party in Columbia, SC. The photo, taken on November 6 at a time when Phelps wasn’t in training, surfaced this week in News of the World, a British tabloid. The News source, a fellow party-goer, described Phelps as “out of control from the moment he got there. If he continues to party like that, I’d be amazed if he ever won any more medals again…[He] ended up just getting wasted every night. He didn’t know many people, so you’d think he’d be a little shy. But he was loud, obnoxious and slamming beers from the get-go.”

Michael Phelps Posing with His Swimming Medals for Sports Illustrated after His Beijing Olympic Wins and after Sports Illustrated Named Him Sportsman of the Year

Phelps apologized for his behavior, saying: “I’m 23 years old and despite the successes I’ve had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public, it will not happen again.” The only problem is, that apology sounds remarkably similar to the one Phelps made when he was 19 and was arrested in Salisbury, Maryland for drunk driving while underage. Phelps was charged then with a DUI after winning six gold medals at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, but pleaded down to driving while impaired. He was given 18 months’ probation, fined $250, was ordered to attend a Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) meeting, and had to speak to high school students about the dangers of drinking and driving. He apologized. And promised it wouldn’t happen again. Questioned by Matt Lauer on the Today Show shortly after the 2004 DUI, Phelps described it as an “isolated incident.” He said he had “definitely let myself down and my family down…I think I let a lot of people in the country down.”

Gabby Wasson, 4, Waits for Michael Phelps as Maryland Olympians Parade Down York Road in Towson, Maryland after the Beijing Olympics

This time, the stakes are a lot higher for the “Baltimore Bullet,” as Phelps is known. The Baltimore Sun estimates that Phelps’ earns $5 million a year from advertising endorsements. The problem is that advertisers want athletes with squeaky clean images, especially as so many of the products pitched target children. How much commercial appeal is there in an athlete with two known substance abuse issues? 505 Games, Gatorade, Hilton hotels, Kelloggs, McDonald’s, Nike, watchmaker Omega, PureSports, Speedo, Subway and Visa are among Phelps’ sponsors. And there have been rumors that Phelps has been a disappointment to some advertisers, insofar as he lacks stage presence during taping of commercials in particular. AT&T, RosettaStone and Nestle’s PowerBar nutrition bar all ended their relationships with Phelps in 2008 — strangely, after the Olympics.

Professor Joseph Terrian, Marquette University

Companies are getting pickier about their marketing efforts and sponsorships amidst the recession, when they need to get the most impact for what money they do spend on advertising, said Joe Terrian, assistant dean of the College of Business at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. While it makes sense that companies like Speedo and PureSport would continue to support Phelps because he uses their products in athletic competitions, other accounts aren’t such a sure thing. Kellloggs and Visa, for example, aren’t directly linked to athletics, and may look for ways to cut the ties with Phelps, especially if they factor in the 2004 DUI. More ominously, Terrian suggested that the golden boy’s sponsors could be checking their contracts for “morality clauses” — which provide ways to back out of sponsorship deals with people who behave badly. Those clauses have been increasingly common since Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers was charged with rape in 2003. (Those charges were later dismissed.)

The International Olympic Committee has accepted Phelps’ most recent apology, saying: “We have no reason to doubt his sincerity and his commitment to continue to act as a role model.” And while Phelps is back in training for the 2012 Olympics in London, England, his sponsors might do well to look at the swimmer’s favorite quote, posted last year on his page at SwimRoom: “Actions speak louder than words.”

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Photo credit: Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun

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