Celebrity Accountability

I’m saddened by what I’m watching right now. It’s a Today Show interview with Michael Phelps, winner of 8 gold medals at last summer’s Olympics. In case you forgot, he also got a lot of attention recently for a photo of him with a marijuana bong  to his mouth. The real tragedy here is not that Phelps was smoking weed, or that he got caught in a very public way. The real tragedy is that 1) whether he wants to be or not, he is a role model for teenagers and young kids, 2) he has said categorically that he wants to be a role model for teenagers and young kids, and 3) he’s pulling the typical celebrity “take-‘responsibility’-without-actually-admitting-wrongdoing” schtick.

When asked by Matt Lauer if he tried to suppress the picture once he knew of its existence, his response was a quick, ‘Personally, no.’ He then denied that his representatives had done the same with a less commited, ‘I don’t think so.’ Both of these statements are contrary to what the British tabloid who printed the pictures said. Okay, I’ll push on this one – anybody’s word against a tabloid newspaper’s word is even money in my book.

When asked by Lauer who the people were in South Carolina that Phelps was with when the photo was taken his response was, ‘Ahh, we were just celebrating, honestly. It was just a small group and we were sitting around celebrating.’ Let’s not even talk about the fact that he completely avoided Lauer’s question – maybe he didn’t want his friends to get in trouble for smoking weed, too. The problem here is that the implied message to teens and kids is, ‘When you’re celebrating something, marijuana is an okay way to celebrate.’

Lauer then asked point-blank if the photo showed Phelps actually smoking pot. Phelps’ response – ‘It was a bad mistake. I mean, we all know what you and I are talking about. It was a stupid mistake, bad judgement.’ A very drawn-out, around-the-bush way of saying ‘yes’… By the way, Phelps said all of his answer to this question with a smirk on his face. Again, the implied message is, ‘What I did is okay in my book, but I’m in trouble for it so I’ll say what I need to say to get people off my back.’ Not the message I want my students to understand.

Lauer then did what so few people in the media out there have seemed willing to do with this whole Phelps situation. He read the statement released by Phelps’ publicists after the marijuana photo was taken, the one where Phelps admitted that he engaged in ‘regrettable’ behavior and ‘demonstrated bad judgement’ and that it would ‘never happen again’. Lauer then pointed out that this is almost exactly what Phelps said after his very public DUI in 2004 (when Michael Phelps was only 19, mind you). Phelps’s response? ‘I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. But I’ve never made the same mistake twice.’

So what’s your next mistake, Michael? Sexually assaulting a girlfriend? Harder drugs? Tax evasion? A reality show on Fox? If you set yourself up as a public role model, it’s not good enough to only make these kinds of mistakes once. I’m not saying you have to be perfect, and I’m a huge believer in grace and forgiveness. But so far your pattern of action is 1) train like crazy, 2) win gold medals at the Olympics, 3) get busted publicly breaking the law, 4) ‘admit responsibility’ for #3, and repeat. The role you’re modelling for our young people is one that I don’t want the students in my youth group to follow.

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