Is Phelps Being Judged Differently?

Swimming superstar Michael Phelps has apologized for his behavior after a British tabloid splashed a picture of him toking from a marijuana bong at a college party. Are expectations out of whack for top athletes?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. A bad week got even worse yesterday for Michael Phelps. U.S.A. Swimming has suspended him from competition for three months. And one of his major sponsors, the Kellogg Company, is ending his endorsement contract. This all follows the publication of a photo in a British tabloid a few days ago that shows Phelps inhaling from a water pipe. NPR's Tom Goldman has more now on the debate that picture has started.

TOM GOLDMAN: It was pot. Presidents have smoked it. The current one even says he inhaled. But as the week wore on, it became obvious that for every come on, it was pot, there was someone else saying: Come on, it was pot. It's illegal. And Michael Phelps is a role model to kids. So, the great debate spread from homes to workplaces to network TV shows, like ABC's "The View," where Whoopi Goldberg became a cannabis confessor.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The View")

Ms. WHOOPI GOLDBERG (Actress): You know, God help me, I'm going to make an admission, and I hope you all are sitting down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GOLDBERG: I mean, I have to say, you know, I have smoked weed. I'm sorry. I have - yeah.

GOLDMAN: On YouTube, a guy named Evan, like, zeroed in on the existential question behind the whole Phelps debate.

EVAN : I mean, should we be mad at him?

Unidentified Person: I don't know.

EVAN: I mean, we get very, very pissed off for finding out that, you know, all these people on the street are smoking drugs and stuff. And then, it's like, well, Michael Phelps is doing it. Then, it's, like, should we be mad?

GOLDMAN: For the many businesses that use Michael Phelps to sell their products, Evan's questioned morphed from should we be mad, to will we be mad? The answer, potentially, was worth millions of dollars because if we ended up mad at Phelps, businesses might not want to pay him for his endorsements. But there was good news for Michael.

Professor NANCY OLBERZ MILLER (Marketing, Berry College): The research suggested that there's almost never a negative backlash, even when they're very serious scandals.

GOLDMAN: Nancy Olberz Miller is a marketing professor at Berry College in Georgia. She's written about what happens to companies when athlete endorsers get in trouble. Her message to all those Michael Phelps sponsors: Don't cut ties.

Prof. MILLER: Companies that stuck with the athlete through the scandal typically ended up performing better, stock-price-wise, six months after the scandal had happened.

GOLDMAN: Speedo, Visa, watchmaker Omega - all Phelps sponsors - did stand by their man. Kellogg was always going to be a stickier situation. Mike Lewis is a sports marketing expert from Washington University in St. Louis.

Mr. MIKE LEWIS (Sports Marketing Expert, Washington University): Omega is selling to a very different clientele, right? Omega is selling to fairly worldly, affluent customers, where Kellogg is selling to mom buying cereal for her kids, right?

GOLDMAN: And mom won the day yesterday. Kellogg announced it won't renew its contract with Phelps when it expires at the end of this month. That, and the three-month competition ban by the U.S.A. Swimming, were a double-barreled PR hit for Phelps, who's training again in his hometown of Baltimore. In an interview this week with Baltimore TV station WBAL, Phelps was asked if the incident - for which he has publicly apologized - has made him rethink his plan to compete in the 2012 Olympics.

Mr. MICHAEL PHELPS (Swimmer, Gold Medalist): It's good to get back in the water. I'm not going to make any decisions yet. But we'll see what happens. I mean, you know, like I said, this is something where I can relax, I can chill, I can be myself. You know I feel home in the water.

GOLDMAN: As the nation debated his behavior on land, fellow Olympic swimmer Dara Torres reminded Americans of their love affair with Phelps as he won medal after medal in Beijing. He didn't let the U.S.A. down at the Games, Torres said. So we shouldn't let him down.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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