Being like Mike

Nick Baker

On one hand, we have America’s literal golden boy. He won an unprecedented eight gold medals in Beijing, giving him 14 in his career, was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 2008 and had his face slapped on millions of boxes of Frosted Flakes.

On the other, we have an irresponsible 23-year-old reefer addict who spends his downtime taking bong rips at college parties or getting behind the wheel after a few highballs. Oh, and we don’t have the Frosted Flakes anymore either.

Michael Phelps is a hero to athletes and kids across the country. Now he, too, is the hero of your burnout friend who insists he can play basketball better after he’s fired one up in the car in the playground parking lot.

“Dude, Michael Phelps smokes. They have pictures! He won like, a gang of gold medals in Japan last summer. I figure, if it worked for him, it could probably at least help me with my ‘J.’ But seriously, I actually might shoot better when I’m high.”

Well, friend, maybe you can shoot better after toking up some herb, and hell, maybe you could eat a load of acid and pitch a Dock Ellis-style no-hitter. But if you really think the stained-glass image of everything Americans want sports to represent incarnate could turn into a dope fiend in public view and maintain his hero status, then I’d say you better think again.

Despite all the image problems college and professional sports have had, people still want to believe in that All-American hero song and dance, and Michael Phelps represented that side of American society.

Sure, basketball players are thugs, baseball players are pigs (ever heard of slump-busting?), football players will probably shoot you (or themselves, ha!) and hockey players – well, let’s not even get into that (Sean Avery).

But not Michael Phelps! He seemed like such a nice boy.

He was a record setter. He was a champion. He was the stand-out figure at our suspicious new friend’s coming-out party.

He might not have been Jesse Owens in Berlin, sticking it to ol’ Hitler and his racial superiority theories, but he did go to China, the globe’s newest superpower, to remind those pinkos with a friendly smile and a red, white and blue foam finger that the U.S. is still #1.

Sports heroes tend to take on superhuman qualities in the eyes of Americans, especially one as accomplished as Phelps. The only thing is, these heroes are human, and when we get around to remembering that, we tend to overlook some of their demons because, well, they’re just so damn entertaining both on and off the field.

Kobe Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault (the case was ultimately dropped). The Great Bambino had a taste for the sauce. Wilt Chamberlain slept with women across America and wrote about it and Michael Jordan had a gambling problem.

But we, as a sports-centric society, can forget about that stuff. These guys are all hall of famers in their respective fields and that’s how they will be remembered.

Even Phelps went to Beijing with a drunk driving charge under his belt from after the 2004 games, but he quickly erased any memory in the American public’s consciousness by jumping in the pool eight times.

He would have never been remembered for a little buzzed vehicle operation. He went a perfect eight for eight and was instantly crowned lord and savior of American athletics.

And then he got high, and then he got high, and then he got high.

Only marijuana is not exactly the devil weed with roots in hell that people want to make it out to be.

More people, and athletes, are starting to learn this, and society is rethinking values of pot and sports.

Last year, Josh Howard of the Dallas Mavericks stated that a lot of basketball players smoke marijuana in the off-season and it’s no big deal. Santonio Holmes of the Pittsburgh Steelers was caught rolling around smoking a blunt, and no one really cared.

Even in Japan, where possession charges come with a possible 5-year prison term, there has been a growing problem of marijuana use in the sacred sport of sumo wrestling.

In 1998, Gary Hall Jr., an American swimmer who won four gold medals at the 1996 games, tested positive for marijuana. Hall lost all his endorsement deals, including one with Speedo, the same company who accepted Phelps’s apology and does not seem to have plans of dropping him.

Nick Baker is a junior magazine journalism major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. [email protected].