Michael Phelps Marijuana Flap Highlights Athletes' 'New Sense of the Paparazzi'

Olympic star Michael Phelps, shown last month, has drawn global attention for a photo of him smoking from a marijuana pipe.
Olympic star Michael Phelps, shown last month, has drawn global attention for a photo of him smoking from a marijuana pipe. (By Hassan Ammar -- Associated Press)
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By Mark Viera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A college house-party snapshot of Michael Phelps inhaling from a marijuana pipe is the latest evidence of how a single cellphone or video image can suddenly compromise -- or destroy -- a celebrity's carefully crafted public image.

Since the British tabloid News of the World published a photograph of Phelps on its cover Sunday in which the Olympic swimming star is shown smoking from a bong during a visit to the University of South Carolina, the story has dominated sports and celebrity blogs, attracted global newspaper and TV coverage, and provided rich material for late-night comics.

The latest fallout came yesterday, when a spokesman for Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said police in South Carolina were reviewing the incident to determine whether to file criminal charges against Phelps.

Phelps, who apologized for what he called his "regrettable" behavior and "bad judgment" shortly after the photo appeared, has received the support of several of his corporate sponsors, including Speedo, Omega and Visa. But the publicity surrounding the picture underscored the fact that athletes are now being subjected to the same technology-fueled scrutiny that has been cast on celebrities for years -- and how sports stars with squeaky-clean images are the most vulnerable and have the most to lose.

"It's a new sense of the paparazzi for athletes," said Eddie Rhodman Jr., a publicist for athletes, adding, "Everywhere you go, everything you do, someone's watching."

Other prominent athletes have been cast in a similarly unflattering light. The Web site DrunkAthlete.com has undated photos of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a Super Bowl victory on Sunday, appearing to pour tequila into a woman's mouth. Last summer, video leaked of NBA center Shaquille O'Neal mockingly rapping about his former teammate, Kobe Bryant, at a New York club. The most popular story about Matt Leinart on the sports blog Deadspin.com -- the page, dated March 31, 2008, has been viewed almost 174,000 times -- shows the backup quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals holding a funnel for a young woman appearing to chug beer.

The South Carolina photograph was not the first brush with bad publicity for Phelps, who pleaded guilty to a drunken driving charge in Maryland after the Athens Games in 2004. In September, shortly after he won a record eight Olympic gold medals in Beijing, photos circulated showing Phelps with his hand on the thigh of a scantily clad woman at the Playboy Club in Las Vegas.

In the past, most legally public information from a house party or nightclub was not disseminated. Now, virtually everyone carries cellphones that can take photos or video, and nothing stands in the way of them snapping drunken pictures or otherwise embarrassing footage and distributing them on YouTube or blogs that specialize in images and stories of athletes behaving badly.

"There's going to be an actual recording and the publishing of the recording doesn't require the established media to decide whether to publish it," said Jeff Liebenson, a digital media and entertainment attorney with the New York-based firm Herrick, Feinstein. "The established media has its own conduct and own set of standards, but now every individual is now a publisher."

This has changed the way some sports figures behave. In an effort to protect himself, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, a married man with two children, said he will not put his arm around women in photographs. Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said he limits himself to a few beers when he goes out.

"You can't be yourself anymore," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said. "People want you to be yourself, but you have to be careful with that kind of stuff. We, as public figures, want to get closer to people and when we don't, people don't understand. Athletes nowadays don't know who to trust."

The spread of blogs has spurred conversation about what defines the boundaries of sports coverage.

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