Phelps Made a Mistake, but Let's Keep It in Perspective

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, February 4, 2009; 4:27 PM

I've parted the thick curtain of haze covering my mind long enough to listen to my friends Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon condemn Michael Phelps for getting caught with a bong in his hand, and me for joking about my own youthful transgressions. I'll try to shake off my long-term memory loss and frame a rebuttal.

No, Michael Phelps didn't live up to an Olympian moral standard. But be careful, Mister Tony. I know what you did in college. Want to talk about that day the UC-Berkeley bell tower started waving in the air like a magic carpet? It's pretty funny to hear you doing a full Bill Bennett over the substances that saw you through your formative years.

Phelps did a dumb thing -- no one condones it. Mike and Tony, much as I love and respect them, distort my position when they say I "wink and nod" at Phelps and give him a free pass. I don't defend Phelps for hitting a bong, and failing to live up to his commercial image. I merely refuse to judge him too harshly for a transgression that seems more a matter of immaturity than of venality. And I didn't realize marijuana was too serious a matter to be joked about. Better tell Cheech and Chong.

Most days, Phelps seems a decent and hard working champion. (Tony's hard-working, too; tapering for him is going to the Grill Room after nine holes). He messed up, but so have millions of Americans -- 42 percent of all people in the United States have used marijuana. When most people commit those failings, they do so with the same expectation of privacy that Mr. Tony enjoys when he goes to The Palm.

One of Phelps's dumber mistakes was to imagine that the strangers at that South Carolina frat party were benevolent. Whose behavior in that room was more reprehensible, Phelps's as he sucked in smoke, or the unnamed prince of a guy who took a cell-phone picture of him, and sold it to the News of the World for cold cash? Why shouldn't we be just as concerned with that lousy example? Personally, I'd like to hire the Duke lacrosse team to find him.

Sure, Phelps should have made a better decision, especially since he signed large endorsement deals to sell products based on being a good citizen. But let's keep this in perspective, and try to view it with some sense of degree. As Kathleen Parker recognizes in her excellent column, "all drugs are not equal." Marijuana is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine equivalent to a traffic ticket, and it doesn't kill you. Meanwhile 450,000 Americans die of tobacco related illness each year. A hundred thousand more die alcohol-related deaths. And frankly, the collective health of America's Children is likely to be far more compromised by McDonald's Happy Meals than by Phelps's poor example.

A couple of presidents had a passing acquaintance with cannabis in their 20s, too -- and they somehow managed to lift their heads off the curb and avoid becoming stock boys at 7-Eleven. I'll leave the argument at that. It's the best I can do, given how I ruined my mind in my youth.

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