Why Do We Prop Athletes Up As Role Models?

News of Michael Phelps' supposed bong hit is quickly spreading across the internet today, and tabloids and newspapers all across the world are commenting on the damage it might do to his post Olympic career.

A photograph of Phelps smoking a bong has made headlines everywhere, and the notion that Phelps has disappointed his fans, supporters, and children who look up to him seems to be connected with this image. But in all honesty, is anyone really surprised? Phelps is a 23-year-old guy with tons of money, fame, and who spent most of his early twenties in a pool, training and training and training, while his peers were out partying and being, you know, normal young adults. Phelps smoking a bong at a party isn't a huge deal, but the fact that he was caught on film, however, is.

Because of the picture, Phelps will most likely lose several endorsement contracts, and face scrutiny in future competitions, now that the public attaches him to using any type of drug. But even more devastating is the impact this picture will have on his public persona: Michael Phelps, superhuman Olympian, hero to the world's children, has screwed up. It's not the first time, either: Phelps, if you remember, was arrested for drunk driving in 2004. The 8 gold medals he won in the Beijing Olympics, however, seem to have wiped that story from the public's minds. This time, however, Phelps may not be as lucky.

But here's the thing: Phelps never asked to be a role model. Few athletes ever do. The best of them take on the responsibility, seizing an opportunity to provide younger people with a source of inspiration and a "hey, you can do it too" mentality. But being a remarkable athlete and being a role model for the world aren't mutually exclusive, and this is a major issue in the United States, where we prop up entertainers and athletes as models of how to live, when people who are really changing their communities and providing a positive example for young kids go under the radar each and every day. We assign role model status to those who do not necessarily want or deserve it, and then we act surprised and angry when those role models "let us down."

"I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment," Phelps said today. "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."

This kind of statement is standard: Phelps issued almost the exact same statement after his drunk driving arrest, right down to reminding the public that he's a young kid:

"Getting in a car with anything to drink is wrong, dangerous and unacceptable," Phelps said at the time, "I'm 19 but was taught no matter how old you are, you should always take responsibility for your actions, which I will do. I'm extremely sorry for this. ... That's all I can say right now."

Michael Phelps is an extraordinary athlete, but in many ways, he's a normal person who just wants to live the same kind of life that his peers are living. He may be flawless in the water, but on land, he's just like the rest of us, with flaws and problems and vices. He's not a fallen role model or a disgraced hero as much as he's a human being. This doesn't necessarily excuse Phelps' behavior, but it might, in some way, make a little sense of it. Yes, he's a model of extreme dedication to a sport, of focus, concentration, and skill, but perhaps more importantly, he's a model of the notion that just because someone excels at a sport, it doesn't necessarily mean they're worthy of super role model status, nor do they necessarily want to be seen as such. Even the greatest athletes in the world eventually slow down and retire. It's character, not athletic ability, that determines how they will be remembered in the long run, after the medals have been put away, the scandals have died down, and the world has moved on to the next great hero.

Bong Picture Puts Pressure On Michael Phelps [Times Online]
Michael Phelps DUI Bust: "I Made A Mistake" [People]
Swimmer Phelps Regrets Pot Pipe [BBC News]