Phelps Made a Mistake, But His Handlers Made It Worse

By John Feinstein
Special to
Monday, February 2, 2009; 12:09 PM

Michael Phelps screwed up. Of that, there is no doubt. He went to a party in Columbia, S.C. in November and got caught on camera taking a hit on a marijuana bong. Someone sold the photo to a London tabloid and it ran in the newspaper this past Sunday.

Yup, he made a mistake.

He made the kind of mistake a lot of 23-year-olds make. After living as disciplined a life as any human being has lived for most of 10 years, he let loose after his epic eight-gold-medal performance at the Beijing Olympics. The case can be made that no athlete in history has been more entitled to party than Phelps.

So, he partied. And, somewhere along the line he forgot that when you are Michael Phelps and you have become the world's most recognizable athlete, the rules aren't the same as they are for other 23-year-olds. You aren't allowed to make the same mistakes that others are allowed to make.

If a normal 23-year-old gets caught smoking marijuana these days, it's a misdemeanor and, if you're a first-time offender, you're apt to get fined and told not to do it again. Phelps doing it becomes a story heard round the world.

It would be nice to report that the people who represent Phelps rode to the rescue and minimized the damage. Unfortunately, that's not the case. According to the story in the London tabloid that bought the photo, an employee of Octagon -- the firm that represents Phelps -- attempted to bribe the newspaper into not running the photo.

The paper, The News of the World, reported that Octagon's Clifford Boxham offered the paper Phelps's services as a columnist for the next three years and as a host at events on behalf of the newspaper and also offered to get some of Phelps's sponsors to buy advertising in the newspaper.

The paper goes on to quote Boxham as saying, "It's seeing if something potentially very negative for Michael could turn into something very positive for The News of the World."

Tabloids like The News of the World are famous for wild exaggerations and anonymous quotes that are clearly made up. In fact, the story that accompanies the photo is filled with anonymous quotes from people at the party in Columbia and over-the-top claims that Phelps could be banned from swimming for four years because of marijuana use. That's flat-out wrong and the quotes are designed to ramp up the "scandal" of Phelps's behavior.

But the Boxham quote rings absolutely true. It's on the record and it comes from someone the paper knows is backed by a boatload of lawyers -- so there would be significant risk to puts words into his mouth that didn't come out of it.

Which brings us to this question: What were the Octagon people thinking?

Whatever any of us think about agents, most of them are smart guys. So how could they not know the oldest saying in the Book of Screw-Ups: "The cover-up is always worse than the crime." (See Nixon, Richard)

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