Olympic gold medal winner Michael Phelps' pot-smoking controversy isn't a career-ending misstep. The 23-year-old athlete swiftly apologized for the behavior that he called “regrettable,” and the International Olympic Committee has accepted it. Moreover, crisis PR experts who have called for steeper ramifications against the superstar swimmer are out of touch with changing public attitudes toward marijuana-related controversies. A recent CBS poll found 41% of Americans support legalization of marijuana, up from 27% in 1979.
What's often referenced in media conversations on the subject is that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – two of the last three men elected US president – have admitted to smoking pot.* Phelps has yet to lose any sponsors to the controversy and will likely not be banned from the 2012 Olympic Games. The lesson for crisis PR experts is some missteps do not call for an overblown course of action to rectify them.
Yes, sponsorships are a billion-dollar industry and athletes are being paid huge sums of money to perpetuate a certain image toward their brands. But this incident does not take away from the reason Phelps is famous. It is not his boy-next-door qualities that made him the superstar he is; it is because he's an extraordinary, record-breaking athlete. Of course, an incident that would affect his efforts in the pool, such as one involving performance-enhancing drugs, would be another matter.
It's not a stretch to say that, before this incident, Phelps was one of the last people the public thought would get caught smoking marijuana. But this is just the latest example of how larger-than-life personas nearly always fail to live up to the created hype. Media reports have said we've now established that Phelps, while an elite athlete, is otherwise human. But based on the relative “who cares” sentiment to the story, it appears the public already knew that.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this editorial stated that former president George W. Bush had also admitted to smoking pot, but in fact, the president only hinted at it in taped conversations, but publicly declined to discuss drug use.