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Pot backers hit Kellogg’s over Phelps

- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2009

Yes, he smoked it. But Michael Phelps has not gone to pot just yet.

There's a "Phelps backlash" out there. Fans and sympathizers have issued a cheeky call to boycott Kellogg's, the cereal and snack megamanufacturer that dropped the Olympic swimmer's lucrative endorsement contract after his experience with marijuana became public a week ago.

"Kellogg's has profited for decades on the food tastes of marijuana-using Americans with the munchies. In fact, we believe that most people over the age of 12 would not eat Kellogg's products were they not wicked high," reads a multipart petition written by Lee Stranahan, a Los Angeles writer and filmmaker.

Pop-Tarts, Cheez-Its and other junk-food favorites of marijuana users figure prominently in the drive, along with mentions of the "freaky" lifestyle of John Harvey Kellogg, who founded the company in 1906. Mr. Stranahan's petition was featured Friday at the online Huffington Post and elsewhere.

"I was cracking a bunch of jokes about it on Twitter," he said, referring to the popular Internet social network that showcases instant reports from millions of visitors.

"Then came a serious tipping point. It became evident that more people than not thought that what happened to Michael Phelps was ridiculous. It's not like he was standing on the street in a Snoop Dogg T-shirt, smoking a joint. His privacy was violated," Mr. Stranahan said.

"What makes people mad is that Kellogg's knew he had a driving-under-the-influence charge when he was 19, and yet they still sponsored him."

The fuss has sparked controversy over Mr. Phelps' fitness as a role model, the state of marijuana laws, the commercialization of sports figures and the health risks for a swimmer who inhales recreational smoke.

"People who abuse marijuana are at risk of injuring their lungs through exposure to respiratory irritants and carcinogens found in marijuana smoke," said the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which also noted that users are more susceptible to psychoses, depression, anxiety, chest colds, coughs, bronchitis and spikes in normal heart rate of up to 50 beats per minute.

Kellogg's, which announced late Thursday that it would not renew Mr. Phelps endorsement contract at the end of the month, has already set up an toll-free line for consumers who want to weigh in on the situtation, pro or con.

He has been formally disciplined as well. USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport, suspended Mr. Phelps from swimming competitively for three months.

Among the sponsors, Kellogg's stands alone in its harsh judgment so far.

Others commercial backers -- including Speedo, Omega and Visa -- appear satisfied with Mr. Phelps' public apology for "regrettable behavior" and "bad judgment," which was made after a British tabloid published a photo of the record-breaking Olympic athlete smoking marijuana at a college house party in November.

None have canceled their reported million-dollar sponsorships with Mr. Phelps, who won eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and has 14 Olympic gold medals overall -- both records.

"We have spoken with Michael, and he has expressed regret for the situation, has committed to being accountable and improving his judgment in the future," Visa said. "We intend to support him as he looks to move forward."

Some athletes also are coming to his defense.

Mark Spitz, who won seven swimming medals in the 1972 Munich Olympics, expressed his sympathy for Mr. Phelps this week to the press, though he prefaced his feelings with the phrase, "as strictly a fan," and offered no further comment.

"It is obvious that all sportsmen should set an example to youngsters, but Phelps has asked for forgiveness and faced up to things," Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo said.

Jon Urbanchek, a University of Michigan coach who worked with Mr. Phelps before the 2008 Olympics, said Friday that he had not "lost the support of the Michigan family," according to the Detroit Free Press.

"He needs guidance," Mr. Urbanchek said. "Businesses look at him as a commodity. But Michael is more than a commodity to me. He's a human being and he needs love and affection, and periodically he needs a shoe up his you know what. That's how kids are."