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Phelps Made a Mistake, But His Handlers Made It Worse

By John Feinstein
Special to washingtonpost.com
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)

Phelps smoking dope and getting caught may be dumb, but trying to cover it up is beyond stupid. His crime isn't just a misdemeanor legally, it's a misdemeanor in the court of public opinion. In fact, it isn't as bad as Phelps's other post-Olympic mistake, when he pleaded guilty to driving while impaired in 2004, not long after the Athens Olympics.

Phelps handled that situation perfectly -- perhaps because there wasn't any chance for the Octagon folks to try the cover-up route. He apologized for his mistake, made no excuses -- even though his blood-alcohol level was 0.08 percent, right at the legal limit -- and volunteered to speak to school kids about drinking as part of his sentence.

On Sunday, Phelps issued an apology -- which was a good thing -- but even it smacked of corporate overplay.

"I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment," Phelps said in an Octagon-released statement. "I'm 23 years old and despite the successes I have had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner that people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public -- it will not happen again."

Read that again and decide if one word of it came out of Phelps's mouth. Sure, statements always have a certain formality to them -- not to mention they usually seem like cop-outs for people who don't want to answer questions -- but Phelps doesn't even come close to talking like that. "I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way?" How about something like, "I messed up, I'm truly sorry. I know I let a lot of people down and I know my mom and my coach are going to kill me for this."

That's the way Phelps talks. He's too old to be called a good kid anymore, but he's a nice young man whose work ethic has had as much to do with his extraordinary success as his natural talent. If he had been quoted in the initial story as saying he was sorry instead of Boxham being quoted (and, by the way, Boxham is just the out-front guy for Octagon; you can bet Phelps's agent Peter Carlisle and everyone in the firm's upper echelon was involved in this), the issue would have been defused right away. It wouldn't have gone away completely, but it would not have gotten the kind of play it is now getting with all the various governing bodies jumping in to cluck about how disappointed they are in Phelps.

The worst part of the cover-up is that Octagon was clearly concerned with one thing: how would this affect Phelps's endorsement contracts. No doubt they were worried that some companies might invoke some kind of "morals clause," the kind that exist to protect companies if someone they have signed as a spokesman gets into serious trouble. Kobe Bryant and Sprite is a perfect example of this kind of thing.

Chances are pretty good that most of Phelps's companies will stick with him because he's a big-ticket item who hasn't done anything seriously wrong. Let's be honest: If these two transgressions -- the '04 drinking and driving charge and this -- are the worst things Phelps ever does, he will have lived a pretty admirable life.

What Phelps should do now is understand that Octagon has controlled him too tightly. When he made the media rounds following the Olympics, he sounded scripted, constantly going back to the line about wanting to help to build swimming as a sport through his foundation. That's an admirable goal and there's no doubt that Phelps wants to do all that.

But when an interviewer asks you what the coolest thing you've done since the Olympics, you don't revert to the foundation answer. The guess here is Phelps's instinctive answer -- whether it was about meeting some gorgeous woman or a celebrity he thought was cool or posing for the cover of Sports Illustrated a la Mark Spitz -- would have been a lot better than his scripted answer about the foundation. Even in his book, Phelps sticks to the script to the point where it frequently reads like a 228-page press release.

I've spent extended time with Phelps on just one occasion, and that was when he was a 17-year-old phenom just beginning to emerge as a real star. He was instantly likeable: self-deprecating, with a good sense of humor.

The people at Octagon, in their zeal to make every buck they can possibly make, have tried to turn him into Captain America, the symbol of all that is right with sports and the USA. They need to lay off and just let him be who he is: a well-raised young man who, like a lot of well-raised young people makes an occasional mistake

Michael Phelps has done extraordinary things in a swimming pool. Out of the pool -- as the Octagon statement acknowledges -- he's a young man still learning how to deal with the white-hot spotlight of mega-fame.

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with that. As long as the people you pay to help you grow and learn don't make things worse by trying to cover up when you make a mistake.

We all make mistakes. Half the battle is owning up to them. Phelps has now owned up to this one. It's too bad his agents weren't smart enough to advise him to do so right away.

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