Tuesday, Feb. 3 at 2 p.m. ET

Sally Jenkins on Michael Phelps's Tokin' Effort

Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 2009; 2:00 PM

The Post's Sally Jenkins was online Tuesday, Feb. 3 at 2 p.m. ET to take your questions about Michael Phelps's apology for smoking marijuana and the appetites and habits of great athletes.

The transcript follows.

Read Sally's column: Big Bong Theory

Sally Jenkins is a Washington Post sports columnist, and the author of several books, most recently "The Real All Americans: The Team That Changed a Game, a People, a Nation."

Sally Jenkins's Recent Columns


Central Massachusetts: Hi Sally,

Thanks for the Phelps column today. Like you, I did some . . . research . . . on this topic when I was his age (though you didn't actually say that, did you?)

I don't want to sound like an old fogey. But - is there not something to the idea that say, a 10-year-old who idolizes Phelps might get the idea that toking is okay since Phelps does it? And that a brand such as Wheaties might have cause to revoke an endorsement deal because of it?

And in the personal responsibility realm, my understanding is that regular indulging can damage your lungs, so you'd think Phelps, or at least his coach, would have some concern there.

Hope you're not getting too beat up today.

Sally Jenkins: Through the thick veil covering my mind, I seem to perceive more than one question here. I'll try to take them point by point.

There is certainly something to the idea that Phelps has an influence on children -- but I'd argue he certainly has a far better influence than Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, or Ashton Kutcher. He spends the vast majority of his time living a life of grueling, monkish discipline and he is dedicated to his craft. About every four years, after exhausting himself in the pursuit of greatness, he does something publicly self indulgent and stupid. As opposed to, say, Christian Bale, who apparently does things both stupid and mean on a weekly basis.

I can only tell you what I tell the kids in my own life about sports heros like Phelps. Perfection in sports is a dangerous illusion. Don't ever confuse it with real virture, or intellect. Let's try to understand exactly what its genuinely good for -- it teaches discipline,dedication -- but let's also try to see what's often false about it. The really marvelous thing about sports is that the most extraordinary things are accomplished by quite ordinary people, who are just as flawed personally as you or me. What's great about them is how hard they work to OVERCOME those flaws, and turn them to positives.

That's really all I was trying to say, in a lighthearted way.

As for Wheaties, isn't that a Kellogg company? They'd have their nerve cutting of Phelps's endorsement, when some of their sugar coated cereals are doing a whole lot more harm than Phelps ever did.

As for your last point, it seems obvious that Phelps doesn't smoke ennough of anything to affect his lungs.


Sterling, Va.: I was sickened by your decision to use your column space to revel in your own past(?) drug use and make excuses for Michael Phelps's irresponsible behavior. Michael Phelps went from being a young man who caused the world to reconsider what the boundaries are for human physical accomplishment to becoming the gold standard example when drug users want to argue that marijuana use isn't harmful. His decision to smoke dope was not a mistake; it was a conscious decision to sell out the responsibility he has accepted by signing endorsement deals worth millions of dollars to serve as an example to young people of what an athlete should be for an opportunity to be one of the guys.

Perhaps you should give up sports writing and sign on with High Times. Your longing for the drug clouded days of your youth has left you incapable of understanding the damage done when heroes legitimize the use of illegal drugs. I'll bet Phelps had no idea where the dope he was smoking came from or what it may have been laced with. Neither will the as yet uninitiated kids who decide to take a hit since, apparently, both Sally Jenkins and Michael Phelps did so without any repercussions.

One other favor. Don't sully the name of Pete Sampras by comparing him to Michael Phelps because Sampras went on a steak-eating binge. Ridiculous. Phelps could have blown off steam in about 10 million acceptable, if foolish, ways - ice cream and steaks included. Drugs, abusive treatment of women, racist rants - there really aren't that many things on the can't do list.

Sally Jenkins: I writhe with remorse and regret at many, many things in my past. The column wasn't really about me thoough, that stuff was tongue-in-cheek, a way of saying, aren't we condemning Michael Phelps for behavior lots of people are guilty of to one degree or another? What's worse, a 23-year-old who inhaled marijuana, or someone who comes home and drinks three martinis in front of their kids every night?

As for the harmful effects of marijuana that's an interesting discussion that I don't claim to know the answer to. Our last three Presidents had a passing acquaintance with it, and seem to have survived it, along with many great musicians, and yes, athletes. On the other hand, I have pretty strong feelings about its ruinous effect on people who use it chronically.


Gaithersburg, Md.: While I personally agree that Phelps shouldn't be legally, morally or socially punished for his transgression (after all I'm a child of the 60's), I think that the sponsors and advertisers who are the source of his income should be free to drop him for any reason they choose, including this episode. This being the case, it is the height of stupidity to be so cavalier about your behavior/image within the public eye, be it drunk driving or pot smoking among herds of college kids with cell phone cameras. If you want to sell yourself to Madison Ave. and the fawning public as a hero and a saint, be prepared to behave accordingly (at least while they're watching). What a moron! While you or I may have partaken occasionally in our youth, I doubt we had tens of millions of present or future income on the line.

Sally Jenkins: That's an interesting distinction: does Michael Phelps surrender the right to privacy, or to ever do anything ill-considered, because he signed those endorsement contracts? In other words, did he sign away his youth and indiscretions?


Sarasota, Fla.: Thanks, Ms. Jenkins, for a great column. I have never smoked pot, nor have I consumed any other illegal drug. But I know people who have smoked pot, like my very successful husband back in his college days. He's a college-aged kid hanging out in a college town with other kids his age and did a freaking bong hit. WHO CARES? It makes me think of a quote from Frank Zappa, let me paraphrase, "I had a hit about dental floss and there was no great outbreak of better oral hygiene."

Sally Jenkins: Zappa's always good for an original viewpoint.


Washington, D.C.: A friend and I have been debating the Phelps issue, specifically what would the response if LeBron James had been caught smoking pot. James doesn't play a country club sport and is a minority, and I argue that people are still stupid enough to judge him more harshly then they are Phelps (who isn't getting a free ride either) when Phelps actually has a public history of abusing substances (a DUI).

Sally Jenkins: This debate really gets to the bone. I don't think there's any question, at least in my own mind, that if Michael Phelps was a black athlete he'd be judged more harshly. And he might well have been pulled over in his car a lot more over the years, too. Usain Bolt couldn't even throw his arms in the air in Beijing without Jaques Rogge expressing his disapproval. Marion Jones and Barry Bonds are publicly excoriated almost daily, as well as chased through the years by prosecutors, while the (white) dealers and manufacturers of steroids got sweetheart deals from the prosecutors and go free. So yes, I think Michael Phelps is fortunate he is a young white suburban, otherwise he really could lose millions.


Sunnyvale, Calif.: Hi Sally,

Do you think the same kind of "pass" would be given to LeBron James or any other athlete that has a different appeal than Michael Phelps? Does there seem to be a double standard where we consider one an act of youth indiscretion and another as an example of the drug culture that has contaminated sports? Are we using different standards for different groups?

Sally Jenkins: Again, same question, and better stated.


The government must be high: Sally : Maybe the issue here is that marijuana is a dopey little hemp plant that got a bad rap in the 1920-30's because of jazz musicians. It is not cocaine, heroin, meth or a dangerous narcotic. If decriminalized, it would free up a lot of money to fight the really bad drugs hurting our kids and society.

Sally Jenkins: And yet another viewpoint.


Kensington, Md.: Ms. Jenkins, THANK YOU for the first reality-based piece I believe I have seen yet on this overblown subject in our hypocritical high-and-mighty media. When your editors go out to kill their brain cells over their three-martini lunch today, I do hope they note how overwhelmingly favorably your column was received (in the comments) as compared to the rest of the Post's out-of-touch coverage on this "story."

Still, I fear you may have glossed over one thing in your article. Recent data (from 1992 to the present) suggests that occasional marijuana use may be a "gateway drug" of a very specific sort. In a small but significant number of cases, teens who try pot will end up living behind wrought iron bars in a large White House in downtown DC. There, these former pot "experimenters" invariably are subjected to grueling, stressful situations from sun-up to sundown. People of all stripes will blame them for everything that is wrong in their lives. Premature graying and accelerated aging invariably results. I doubt any parent would wish this fate on their now happy and carefree children. Anyway, it's something to consider in the discussion.

Thanks for the article.

Sally Jenkins: Well, as someone posted in the comments section accompanying the column, among other things marijuana appears to have been a "gateway" to the White House. While there is certainly a legit gateway argument to be made, there is also plenty of evidence that youthful experimentation of the sort Phelps apparently does is hardly damning. The guy has won 14 gold medals.


Washington, D.C.: At least now we know how Michael Phelps is able to eat so much.

Sally Jenkins: As Robin Williams once said, marijuana is only performance enhancing if you put a Hershey bar at the finish line.


Vienna, Va.: I don't see a whole lot of people spreading my own viewpoint, to wit, taking that picture of Michael Phelps and selling it to the tabloids was a REALLY ROTTEN THING TO DO.

Sally Jenkins: You know, I am SO glad someone said that. Which was the really more reprehensible behavior in that room? Phelps doing something stupid, or a slimedog preying on him with a camera and selling it for profit?? I hope to heaven kids take away something about respect for eachother from this whole thing.


Ducktown, Tenn.: There seems to be a lot of commentary about Michael Phelps's worth as a role model for kids. If you're a parent and he doesn't meet that standard, great -- then talk to your kids about the person that does and move on.

But for now, as an Olympic Gold Medalist myself, who was in Beijing this summer in a broadcast context and as the dad of a 7-year-old whose interest in swimming dramatically increased during the Games period, Michael Phelps may turn out to be a more valuable role model right now than he was this summer. It just depends on the standard you want to hold him to.

So figure out what that standard is for Michael Phelps -- Olympic, Presidential, Octagon, your own, etc. -- and move on.

Sally Jenkins: Thank you. Well said.


The Whole Story: As has been widely reported in the media, Michael Phelps admitted the photo was authentic, and has opened himself up to all the consequences that come from his honesty in this situation. Kids that can recognize that will likely learn the greater lesson that they WILL mess up, and owning a mistake is a part of maintaining integrity. For kids that can't see the whole story through, the burden falls on the parents - not Michael, not the media - to make sure kids get the right message from this. Parents: be like Michael - don't pass the buck.

Sally Jenkins: This is the interesting thing about perfection, and about the fantasy of it that we impose on athletes, and that they impose on us with their ad campaigns. Isn't sport supposed to be partly about the ability to cope with a mistake orr setback?


McLean, Va.: The only thing that angered me about the Phelps picture was the fact that it was TAKEN in the first place! Yes, we (and his sponsors) do expect that Michael holds himself to a higher standard, and 99 percent of the time he does that with incredible grace. But what can be said about the student(s) who took that picture(s)? Whatever happened to allowing people their own private time? He wasn't there on "business," he was there for pleasure. I have come across a few celebrities out in DC and have never considered exploiting them for any personal gain.

I just think that the students at that party acted inappropriately. If there was smoking going on, why single out one guy, just because he happens to be more well known? Notice, you don't see pictures of anyone else partaking, and I doubt Michael was the only one.

Sally Jenkins: No further comment needed.


Washington, D.C.: Correct me if I'm wrong, but Marion Jones lied, and Barry Bonds continues to lie, although, Barry still continued his career.

Phelps came clean immediately.

Sally Jenkins: Well, now, Phelps' representatives tried desperately hard to cover up the whole affair, and to bribe the magazine that printed the photo with promises of access to Phelps. Efforts Phelps surely wasn't ignorant of. I wouldn't want to guess how Phelps would behave if he faced a federal prosecutor who asked him on pain of the loss of his entire hundred million dollar fortune whether he sucked on that bong. Would he have told the truth? We can't know. But we do know he tried to cover this deal up, before he issued his statement.


Kids will be kids, but: My issue here is that although he is only 23, he is a 23 year old who has taken a lot of endorsement money. I think that changes a lot. Reminds me of Roethlisberger when he rode without a helmet on his motorcycle. When people pay you money to be a quarterback, you lose freedoms. The same applies here. It is not a matter of him just being a role model for kids, but when you have taken the amount of money he has for sponsorships, the stakes are raised.

Sally Jenkins: Again, an interesting point. But I beg to differ. I don't think Phelps signed away his entire life rights in return for an endorsement deal. Why is Phelps more responsible for the well being of children than the CEOs of McDonalds, and Kellogs?


The Real Lesson for Your Kids: Although I know he didn't do it himself, there's a hidden lesson for one's kids in all of this - STOP POSTING PICTURES OF YOURSELF DOING STUPID STUFF ON THE INTERNET. Sorry, had to get that off my chest. Kids today are some of the biggest morons I've ever known. They will take pictures of themselves doing stupid stuff and post it anywhere - myspace/facebook/flickr/etc. with no regard for the consequences or who may see it.

Savvy parents should use this Phelps thing as an example. I would take my kids and go "See what happens? And you're not Michael Phelps, it'll be a lot more devastating to you."

Sally Jenkins: Laughing.


Baltimore: Consider the example of Bode Miller: Remember how Miller got a lot of indulgent publicity for his freewheeling, ski bum lifestyle, only to then be looked on as drunken fool when he flamed out in the Winter Games? Or, in the more distant past, how everyone in Washington winked and laughed at John Riggins, even after he passed out while dining with Sandra Day O'Connor?

If you have a bad boy image, people will let you get away with being a bad boy. The publicity machine, ably supported by NBC last summer, painted Phelps as kid raised by a single mother who overcame childhood problems to be the World's Greatest Athlete.

Then, when he acts like a 23 year old, everyone wants to talk about his "responsibility." I, for one, am glad his sponsors are sticking with him. But coming on the heels of his DUI a couple years back, Michael should be aware he's closing on on three strikes.

Sally Jenkins: Great observations.


Washington, D.C.: HILARIOUS column today and quite educational. When not writing, what's your favorite travel destination: San Francisco, Amsterdam or Swaziland?

Sally Jenkins: Laughing harder.


Hypocriteville, Tenn.: I missed your tongue-in-cheek column in defense of Adam "PacMan" Jones. Will that be printed next week. It's not illegal to MAKE IT RAIN, is it?

Sally Jenkins: You won't find me defending Pac Man Jones in any terms at all.


Arlington, Va.: To everyone saying "what if it was LeBron? Would we be so quick to forgive?" Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson disagree with your premise.

Sally Jenkins: And yet another facet to the argument.


Herndon, Va.: I've wondered for awhile now what's going to happen when Generation RX comes of age. How are you going to explain that drugs are bad to someone who's been medicated on a daily basis for as long as they can remember?

Phelps is incredibly disciplined in his athletic career, it's not like he's lived the life of a Cheech and Chong devotee. Would it have been a better image for America's youth to have shown him drinking?

Maybe the lesson to teach your kids and for us grownups to learn ourselves is that if you expect people to be perfect you are going to be disappointed every single time.

Sally Jenkins: Ahhhhh, now we're getting into prescription meds. And you could also get into a discussion about perfectly law abiding citizens who abuse Ambien, Vicodin, and Adderol in front of children.


Selling the picture: Isn't that what one is supposed to do when you can get a picture of a celebrity in a compromising position. You sell it for big bucks and have your little laugh. That's what I have learned from TMZ and the like. Celebrities aren't really people. They exist to entertain us, amuse us and occasionally enrich us. The message to kids is you don't want to be a celebrity.

Sally Jenkins: Amen.


Ben Israeli: Every time an athlete gets caught in a situation they always have to apologize and in their apology they have to say how sorry they are to the kids out there because they know they are a role model.

My question is do you know when this notion of athletes being role models became a part of the popular culture? And what makes a better role model: someone who gets a triple double every game or someone who come off the bench and averages low numbers but does more work in the community?

Sally Jenkins: Athletes have always been the repositors of public virtue, going back to the Greeks. Pindar wrote poems about them, and their statues lined the streets of Athens. For our purposes, Muscular Christianity was a Victorian code (read Tom Brown's School Days) that was adopted in this country just as we were brooming up the western frontier, and becoming preoccupied with how to preserve manly virtue now that the West was won and men were cooped up in parlors, and beginning to work in industy, rather than with their hands.

I loved the sports era I grew up in, when some of the fantasy rubbed off, and we began to see more raw and authentic personalities like Ali, Billie Jean King, and Arthur Ashe, real activist-athletes who had their failings but who believed they could use their celebrity for social change. I will gladly exchange any fantasy about Michael Phelp's virtuous character for a more real view of him, as long as he matures and uses his position for some real good, like an Andre Agassi has. He's got the ability, for instance, to raise really large sums of money and build things like Boys and Girls Clubs, etc.. Agassi to me is the model of a guy who has his weaknesses, but who has shown enormous character in turning his trashy sports celebrity into something worthwhile.


Long Arm of the Law: I heard a radio report earlier that the municipality where the college is located is considering legal action for Phelps. You gotta be kiddin' me.

Sally Jenkins: Pretty silly, since the penalty down there is the equivalent of a large parking ticket. It's a misdemeanor and a fine.


McLean, Va.: As a former long-time competitive swimmer and coach, I think it's pretty regrettable that Phelps made a bad choice that became public fodder. Your average stick and ball athlete really has no idea that your career as a full-time world class swimmer is a lot like an Alaskan winter where you barely see the light of day for a decade or more. I'm not condoning marijuana use, but I would say that he never really had a childhood that wasn't perfectly orchestrated by his coach, mother and the swim seasons. At this point I would agree with John Fienstein, who swims, that "no athlete in the history of sports has earned the right to party as much as Michale Phelps."

washingtonpost.com: John's column: Phelps Made a Mistake, But His Handlers Made It Worse (Post, Feb. 2)

Sally Jenkins: Several messages have come in today from swimmers commenting on this, the grueling nature of their training. None are surprised he went off the high dive when he took a break from it.


Columbia SC: As a native of Columbia, SC, I've very angry at the local newspaper and TV stations at covering this Phelps story incessantly. That Phelps smoked pot (in November!) in the borders of South Carolina suddenly makes this an important local issue. I can't imagine a less important story in such bad economic times for my community.

Sally Jenkins: The majority of readers seem to agree with you, that there are matters of far greater weight in the paper.


Ithaca, NY: Oh, boy.

No, Wheaties is a General Mills brand. Wheaties put Michael Phelps on the cover after the 2004 Olympics, but after the 2008 Olympics, Michael Phelps and his agents decided to take a big endorsement from Kellogg's Frosted Flakes and reject Wheaties.

Wheaties is low sugar. (Which is not to say that General Mills does not sell any cereals with high sugar content.)

Sally Jenkins: My bad. Thank you.


Tysons Corner, Va.: Seems to me that a much more significant athletic doping story than Phelps' bong hits is now playing out:

Clemens's DNA Is Linked to Syringes (Post, Feb. 3)

Maybe we should be discussing how many of Roger Clemens late-career achievements were chemically enhanced.

Sally Jenkins: I'm not sure how significant this really is. This McNamee guy kept syringes in a box in his basement for what, several years? And as yet we've not heard whether there are any traces on drugs on the needles that are supposed to have Clemens' DNA on them. It's a good news headline, but how it will hold up as actual evidence is very much in doubt.


Sally Jenkins: Okay folks, got to run. Thanks for reading the Post.


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