Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer has recently apologized for a photograph that showed him using marijuana. Phelps has acknowledged that his behavior was inappropriate and wrote a public statement (probably by a good PR agent), in which he said, “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 the public it will not happen again.”
Phelps was selected by the U.S. Olympic Committee as their sportsman of the year. He was selected as AP male athlete of the year. Also, his accomplishment of winning 8 gold medals at the Beijing Olympics was chosen as the top story of 2008.
With all these accolades his Olympic teammate, Dara Torres said something interesting. Torres mentioned that everything Phelps does becomes news because he is a prominent figure. Torres said, “It’s sort of a double-edged sword. When you’re recognizable, you’re looked up to as a role model. He is recognizable and everything you do gets looked at and picked apart. I guess that’s the price of winning 14 Olympic medals.”
As I was thinking about this story, it reminded me of an important principle in leadership. When you are a public figure, the cost is higher. Leadership is not easy. In fact so many people want the spotlight but they fail to see the cost that is involved. Too often people want to be up on the stage, but they don’t realize how their lives will be scrutinized and held to a different standard. I don’t know if this is necessarily fair, but it comes with the ball game.
There has been a movement within the leadership circles to try to emphasize more of the humanity of leaders so that they will not be put up on a pedestal (translation = use the same standard that is used on everyone else). The purpose is to show that there is power in leading out of brokenness and the leader’s own struggle with various issues. But regardless of such attempts, there is something inside a person that says that if you are a leader then we expect more from you. Maybe it is the biblical principle that says, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (Jas 3:1).
It is interesting how the people in the Olympic circles have been quick to express their disappointment, but at the same time they have decided not to do anything about it.
The problem is this – marijuana is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances. But even though it is prohibited during competition, it does not say anything about the use of it out of competition. Also, Phelps in his apologize statement said, “I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again.”
Hmm… what did he mean by this?
“It will not happen again” in the sense that he will use better judgment next time and remember to not do something illegal in public for the whole to see but in private it is ok or “it will not happen again” in the sense that he will stop using drugs? It is hard to tell. We are all hoping for the latter.
This is where we have the semi-dilemma. If he is not punished for doing something illegal it will send a message to a lot of people, especially young people and people who look up to him as a role model. But if he is punished, then what would the terms of punishment be? Are the people in the Olympic circles willing to make such a tough call? Will the companies that have endorsed him pull out?
Whatever happens from this point on, there will be a message sent to people one way or another, especially to the younger Olympic-aspiring swimmer. Therefore, it is important for me, as a father to get the right message that I want to get across to my kids.
You can read the Phelps’ story here on ESPN.