Their big headliner for the day apparently, was Matt Lauer's interview with Michael Phelps. About what I've dubbed "Bonggate 2009". Seriously? People are still talking about this? I'm not sure what concerns me more: the fact that people are so obsessed with celebrities' personal lives that something like this is still "newsworthy", what, a month later? Or the fact that people are still making such a fuss over a little weed, to the point where the photograph of Phelps taking a hit off a bong is, to paraphrase Lauer, "shocking." Really? You've never seen anyone smoke from a bong before, Matt? Damn, maybe you should get out more.
So I guess I have to ask: am I just out of touch here in California? Is American society, by and large, that Puritanical? Or are we just incredibly hypocritical? Personally, I'm inclined to believe the latter. After watching a rather painful ten minutes or so of Michael Phelps stumbling through the obligatory, perfunctory apology speech, I found myself thinking how ridiculous it is that the media continually perpetuates these farces, and that society demands that they do. Is Michael Phelps really sorry for smoking some pot? Maybe. But probably not. He probably does it every weekend for christsake. Or at least every once in a while. And personally, I don't think he should be sorry. The only "bad mistake" he made was performing the act at a party where he knew he could be photographed. But then since it was a party he was likely drunk to begin with, and god knows I haven't always made the best judgment calls while under the effects of inebriation, so I'm inclined to cut the guy a little slack.
And for that matter, is Matt Lauer really shocked and scandalized at the thought that a 20-something-year-old might want to get a little high every now and then at a party? I should hope not. And yet there he was on the screen, churning out overdramatic taglines about how the incident may affect Phelps career and overshadow his achievements. What? Did I miss something? Why should being photographed with a bong tarnish any accomplishments he achieved in the pool? What exactly does smoking weed have to do with swimming? What does any behavior or activity during his free time have to do with swimming, for that matter, unless he's taking some sort of performance enhancing substance or anything else that would affect the sport?
Which brings me to what I see as a problem in our society. We have a thing for hero worship in America. We like to have people to idolize, people to look up to. We love (and sometimes love to hate) our celebrities. And we love our sports heros. But that's just the thing. They're sports heroes. Which, in my mind, should not be confused with people who commit actual heroic acts. Should we admire their athletic achievements and be inspired by their skill and heart out on the field or the court or in the pool? Sure. Should we expect them to be saints, or to commit particularly inspiring acts outside of the sports arena? I think not. Because if so, we are certainly doomed to continual disappointment. After all, these are just people like anyone else, who happen to have been born with athletic talent and who have trained and worked incredibly hard to rise to the top of their sport.
Why then, are we surprised when the news story breaks, condemning one of them for some "shocking" thing most of us have probably done at some point or other in our lives? We put celebrities up on pedestals, just because they happen to be famous, but then we also want to know every tiny detail of their personal life, and of course some of those are not going to be pretty. There are, I believe, different levels of scandal and misbehavior that should be treated with proportional outrage. For example, there is the Michael Phelps incidence, and then there is Michael Vic. Which further proves my point that we need to separate athletic idolatry from idolatry of the athlete as a whole. Undoubtedly Michael Vic is a talented football player. Is he a good person who should be looked up to? My answer is Hell No.
So yes, I believe that an Olympic champion swimmer should be able to do a bong hit without the world going into uproar. Should Phelps have been conscious of the fact that he is a role model to a lot of young kids, and taken more precaution not to "let his fans down"? Maybe. But when it comes down to it, he's just a 23-year old guy, doing what a large number of 23-year-olds are doing across the country. And 18-year-olds, and 27-year-olds, and probably a decent number of baby boomers who just miss the 60's like whoa.
So is society going to continue to punish him for this minor indiscretion? Yes, I'm sure there are a lot of angry parents out there, disturbed that the person their child idolizes was caught in an illegal act, setting a precedent for their impressionable offspring. But to those parents I would say this: if this upsets you, take more responsibility for who your kids look up to. Teach your children who the real heroes are. Teach them to separate athletic achievement from moral achievement. Tell them that a moment of greatness in sports, or in acting or singing, does not equate to an ethical act, and that while it is good to admire a person's achievements, that doesn't mean we should admire or try to emulate everything they do. Because I think that the real problem here isn't a bit of pot. I think it is the way we view celebrities, and the unrealistic expectations we place on their behavior. After all, girls just want to have fun, and maybe Michael Phelps just wants to party.