The downside of fame

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Being famous has its downside. Just ask Michael Phelps. The young man who set Olympics swimming records with eight gold medals in Beijing last summer may feel his reputation is a little tarnished after some embarrassing photos showed up in a British tabloid.

A few months after the Olympics, Mr. Phelps visited the University of South Carolina. A photograph from a party depicts him appearing to inhale from a marijuana pipe. Neither Mr. Phelps nor his representatives deny that the photo is genuine and he has apologized to fans.

“Despite the successes I’ve had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner that people have come to expect from me,” Mr. Phelps said in a statement. “I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again.” Presumably he made the same promise to his mother. In his book “No Limits: The Will to Succeed,” Mr. Phelps detailed how a DUI arrest in 2004 was embarrassing to him personally but that he was more saddened upon seeing how upset his mother was.

Most of the reports I read quote teammates, old friends, even Olympics officials, saying it was a regrettable incident, but they hope Mr. Phelps learns something and profits from the experience. Those who are most upset likely represent commercial concerns prepared to pay the young man millions for his endorsements, ads and public appearances. But they shouldn’t necessarily call off the contracts just yet.

Yes, he should have known better and he is someone children and youth likely admire because of his athletic abilities. But he’s human. At 23, he’s probably more like the average 23-year-old than most parents of a 23-year-old would like to admit.

While Mr. Phelps’ Olympic feat was - well, Olympian - it was due to hard training, much sacrifice and sheer talent, and should not be discounted because in the off-season, during a much-needed break from training, he did what people sometimes do - he messed up. There may also be legal ramifications. The Richland County sheriff says he will charge Mr. Phelps with a crime if he is determined to have smoked pot in South Carolina.

I’m not excusing Mr. Phelps’ behavior. Like everyone else, I hope he learns from this experience and understands that, like it or not, he is looked up to and emulated by people of all ages, but especially children.

We have a tendency to ascribe some lofty position to people in the public eye because of their achievements. When you have achieved something special, you’re somehow held to a higher standard. We can admire an athlete or an actor or any public figure all we want, and it’s good to have “heroes” these days.

But in truth, we’re all a little hypocritical in our criticism. It seems actors and musicians get away with many more “mistakes” than do athletes, especially young ones. (See: Britney Spears.) Real role models shouldn’t be people in the public eye.

Parents. Older siblings. Other family members. Teachers. Police officers. Firefighters. Veterans. Current members of the military. People who do good things representing their churches, their businesses and their civic organizations. Anyone who does something unselfish and kind, even when no one is watching. These are the real role models in a child’s life, or at least they should be.

Before we criticize Mr. Phelps too much, let’s take a look at ourselves and see if we could stand up under the scrutiny he experiences every day.

I believe he regrets his action and hope he improves his judgment as to how his actions can appear to others. And while we’re at it, why don’t we all hope we do, too?

Bonnie Williams is editorial page editor of the Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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