Mixing Smoke, Alcohol, and Water

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Mar 14, 2009

"Reputation is like glass, easily broken but next to impossible to mend." 

Few athletes have a more impressive résumé than Michael Phelps. His 14 Olympic gold medals and seven world records in swimming say it all. I love watching reruns of the 100 butterfly final when he won his seventh gold medal by a hundredth of a second in the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. I will never forget watching it when it happened. 

Swimming has been the primary focus of most of Michael's entire 23 years. He started swimming at age seven and by the age of 10 he held a national record for his age group. More age group records followed and at the young age of 15 he qualified for the 2000 summer Olympics. 

Michael's passion for swimming is enhanced by his unique physical attributes. He has a long, thin torso which offers low drag. His arms span 6 feet, 7 inches (disproportionate to his height of 6 feet 4 inches) and act as long, propulsive "paddles." His relatively short legs lower drag, while his size 14 feet provide the effect of flippers with hyper mobile ankles enabling him to whip his feet as if they were fins. 

But all of those natural gifts which have earned all of those amazing accomplishments in the pool have not kept Michael Phelps out of hot water. 

In November 2004 at age 19 he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. His fans hoped the $250 fine, 18 month probation, and community service would encourage better choices. In an interview with Matt Lauer one month later he called it an "isolated incident." 

But then, how shocked and disappointed we all were when we first saw that photograph of him using a bong, a device used for smoking marijuana. Almost immediately a fellow Olympic champion, Libby Trickett, said, "It takes some of the shine off his spectacular performances in Beijing and this behavior simply isn't OK." 

Michael himself cited his age as an excuse for his poor judgment. "I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. 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 my public it will not happen again." 

Athletes aren't the only ones who ruin their public influence. What about the lame excuses of our political leaders who don't pay their taxes? As I listen to their explanations I can hardly believe they want us to take them seriously. If average people like you and me tried to do that...why, I don't even have to finish that sentence. 

Sure, I feel sad for Michael Phelps. I can't imagine how hard it must have been for him to tell his mother. I can't imagine how embarrassing this must be for him and his relationship with his swimming colleagues and his fans. I can't imagine how much money he will lose in endorsements. 

But my deepest sadness is not for these effects of Michael's decision. As Abraham Lincoln said, "Character is like a tree and reputation its shadow. The shadow is what we think it is; the tree is the real thing." The most haunting question which emerges is what kind of person is Michael Phelps? He must know that smoke, alcohol, and water do not mix. That lethal concoction can destroy anyone's future, especially someone like him. 

Fortunately, though, he is only 23 years old. He has his whole life ahead of him and all of us trust the true quality of his character will demonstrate these mistakes were speed bumps on his influential life. 

As Joseph Hall observed, "A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was." 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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