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Sunday, August 23, 2009

On Michael Phelps and smoking Bongs

When I step out of my house everyday to go to work, go shopping or just to visit a friend, I often smell marijuana smoke in the air.
When I go into Center City, take the subway, or walk through Rittenhouse Square, I smell the same smoke. Last year, when I was in Montreal, Paris, Florence, Rome, Milan, Stockholm, Oslo, and Copenhagen—I smelled it again.
Marijuana, like American Express, is everywhere.
In fact, the smell is so prevalent if I had just dropped in from another planet I’d make a mistake in assuming that whatever it was that people had in their mouths was something that most people did, like chewing gum.
Enter Olympian champion Michael Phelps. Crowned a media darling after his seven gold medal win in 2008, Mr. Phelps was hailed by the American media as a supreme American hero. “All honor and glory belong to you, Michael Phelps!” became the daily mantra. The very likeable (and amazingly humble) 23 year old was praised for his down home style and his genuine niceness. “He’s the boy next door, totally without pretense,” observers cheered.
Adulations for Mr. Phelps were so high it was only a matter of time before the altar came crumbling down. People not only lost track of the fact that this winning Olympian gold medal winner was also a 23 year old boy, they did that perversely American thing and equated being a sports hero with something else: an icon who would serve as a role model for children.
I’ll get to the ‘children’ part later.
The so called scandal of Mr. Phelps being photographed sucking on a bong (by a fellow party person who no doubt feigned friendship but then sold the photo for money) unearthed an army of with hunters. At the front of the line was a redneck sheriff from South Carolina who wanted the Olympian arrested for breaking the law. Then 700-Club style moralists began whining about Mr. Phelps’ duty to be a “role model for children.” “Let him pay the price!” they demanded. Later, that famous but nearly brain dead ‘View” panelist (the only reigning Republican on the show) suggested that if this Olympian-- “who should be a role model for children”-- can smoke cannabis then he could just as easily take (sports) performance enhancing drugs. (Implication: Maybe Mr. Phelps’ 7 Olympic gold medals were dishonestly earned).
Kellogg’s then cancelled Mr. Phelps’ endorsement contract despite a heartfelt apology from Mr. Phelps (when no apology was needed). Mr. Phelps had a bong in his mouth. He was acting goofy. He may have been getting stoned. That’s what many 23 year olds do, like it or not. Kellogg’s turned a deaf ear to the Olympian’s mea cuplas, proving once again that when strict moralists demand apologies they just want the “transgressor” to humble himself before leveling the axe: “An apology is fine, but that’s not going to change anything. That would be too easy. We’re still going to punish you,” I can imagine them thinking.
When Mr. Phelps won 7 gold Olympic medals he did not consent to be a role model for children. While some children may choose to copy Mr. Phelps’ highly disciplined training habits, nowhere is it written that an adult athlete has to live his life as if that life was in the telescopic lens of a group of small children. An adult athlete does not cease to be an adult because he becomes an instant celebrity. If that same athlete is called upon to endorse products, then that’s what he is contracted to do: to put his mug on the cereal box, not live an illusive “perfect life” so that children can copy that life.
If you want saints, go to Butler’s “Lives of the Saints,” but even in this noble book you will read of youthful follies, fornification, drunkenness, and all manner of foolish and outrageous behaviors.
Not that marijuana is any kind of “sin.” While it’s not my cup of tea (it was for some years in my early twenties), it is, as they say, a plant and not a drug, and it should be legalized.
Experts have been calling for a change in the laws since the LeDain commission of 1972 recommended the decriminalization of Cannabis.
With that said, I think it’s time to leave my house and head into Center City where I can get my daily dose of marijuana smoke.

Thom Nickels can be reached at

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