- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2009

MILWAUKEE | Michael Phelps doesn’t seem to be in much hot water with his sponsors despite his public apology after being photographed inhaling from a marijuana pipe.

From apparel company Speedo to luxury Swiss watchmaker Omega, several sponsors are standing by the 23-year-old swimming phenom - at least for now. Other big companies, such as Visa Inc., Subway and Kellogg Co., aren’t talking yet.

Experts say if Phelps doesn’t stick to the straight and narrow, he could hurt his chances at future endorsements. And there’s no guarantee he won’t be dropped quietly once the furor dies down.

Phelps, who won a record eight gold medals at this summer’s Olympics in Beijing, acknowledged “regrettable” behavior and “bad judgment” after the photo appeared Sunday in the British tabloid News of the World.

The paper said the picture was taken during a November house party while Phelps was visiting the University of South Carolina.

Phelps handled the situation well by apologizing and saying he regretted his actions, said John Sweeney, director of sports communication at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Phelps went a step further and promised “it will not happen again.”

In 2004, after the Athens Games, Phelps - then underage - was arrested for drunken driving. He pleaded guilty, apologized and again said he wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

Sweeney said if Phelps is caught transgressing a third time, he could stand to lose many sponsorships - and the public’s trust. For now, the public and his sponsors could look past it. After all, he said, President Barack Obama has acknowledged using marijuana and still got elected.

“My prediction would be that this will pass,” Sweeney said with caution. “If it does happen again, it’ll be twice the story and it will hurt him.”

Swiss watchmaker Omega said Phelps’ actions were a private matter and “nonissue,” while Speedo called Phelps a “valued member of the Speedo team.”

Companies are getting pickier about their marketing and sponsorships amid the recession, when they need to get the most impact for what money they do spend on marketing, said Joe Terrian, assistant dean at Marquette’s College of Business Administration.

It makes sense that Speedo and PureSport would continue to support Phelps because their products are ones he uses for his sport, Terrian said. But companies with products not directly linked to athletics, such as foodmaker Kellogg and credit card company Visa, may not see him as kindly.

Sweeney said companies may be willing to overlook indiscretions depending on how prominent an athlete is. A minor indiscretion could get a minor athlete tossed from a sponsorship, but it could take a bigger incident to bring down a bigger athlete, he said. Considering Phelps’ unique accomplishment, sponsors still may want him.

“There’s only one of him,” Sweeney said of Phelps. “There’s only one person with eight gold medals, and there’s probably going to be one for a long time.”


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