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Smoked on the water 

You can say no to drugs and leave Michael Phelps alone

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY HEATHER WALTER
  • ILLUSTRATION BY HEATHER WALTER

I didn’t think I was going to write about it, but I did. I’m not really a sports guy, yet here I am, spouting my opinion like I’m someone who follows box scores and mid-season trades. I didn’t even watch the Super Bowl this year.

Anyway, here goes. Feel free to let me know if you think I’ve overstepped my bounds as a traditionally non-sports journalist:

So Alex Rodriguez admits to using performance-enhancing drugs, and it looks like the Yankees will still have him around for years to come. In the last few days, national papers reported that a suspension appeared unlikely despite A-Rod’s confession. Let me reiterate: He admitted to using a chemical substance intended to improve his performance, and besides the controversy the announcement stirred up, it looks like nothing much is going to change for him.

Cut to Michael Phelps, the swimmer who can probably barely stand up straight under all the gold medals weighing him down from his victory at the Olympics. A British tabloid recently published a photo of him smoking from a bong at a party, and all hell broke loose.

Essentially, A-Rod was cheating and lying about it, and I don’t care if you say other pro ball players were, too. His actions were deliberately aimed at unfairly impacting a game in his favor, and the team owners are essentially shrugging it off.

Phelps, on the other hand, has been suspended and has seen sponsors drop him like a lukewarm Big Mac. I’ve since read stories about a South Carolina sheriff arresting locals connected to the party where the now-infamous bong hit happened. There’ve been reports of house raids by deputies with guns drawn.

A-Rod’s drug use directly affected his game, whether by physically making him a better player or having the same impact as a placebo. Either way, he was dumping chemicals into his body with the intent to tweak his nine innings for the better.

Phelps’ drug use was recreational. That’s pretty much all there is to it. He wasn’t toking in the hopes that he’d become a sleeker swimmer or shave tenths of seconds off his lap times. He was chasing a buzz.

There’s a big difference between the two.

Phelps wasn’t named a hero because of his moral fiber or history of clean living. Those attributes may be implied in an all-American success story, but get real. His accomplishments in the water are no less amazing because of a leaked photo of a misstep at a party wholly unrelated to his days in Beijing. He’s human, and he didn’t—as far as I know—use any performance enhancers to nab those medals. So cut him some slack.

I’m not arguing to go soft on him, but pulling the plug on endorsements and other deals? Come on. Kellogg’s wasn’t initially interested in his endorsement because he’s a known and celebrated non-pot smoker. He’s an amazing athlete, and that hasn’t changed. Heck, President Barack Obama has admitted to smoking marijuana, and I still see his face everywhere, promoting hope and change and American values.

A crusade against Phelps goes far beyond due diligence and lands squarely in bizarrely overzealous country. He deserves to be reprimanded, not castigated. Slap him on the wrist as you would to anyone else admitting to enjoying a bong in a party photo, let him endure his 15 minutes of shame, and move on. He may not be the pure white knight people assumed he was, but neither are a lot of other role models. We just don’t know which ones yet, because no slimy paparazzi wannabes have snapped compromising photos of them yet.

I sincerely hope Phelps’ three months out of the water don’t put a dent in his future Olympic challenges. If he comes back from London with less than a dozen gold medals in 2012, I’m blaming USA Swimming and Kellogg’s—not the weed.

Executive Editor Ryan Miller doesn’t do drugs, but he can’t swim either. Contact him at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

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