Earlier this year, a compromising photo of wholesome American superstar Michael Phelps preparing to smoke from a bong surfaced. The photo, which immediately became the topic of the day in the sports world, as well as the rest of the world, has lead to eight arrests, public statements from Phelps, attempts at damage control from his handlers and actions from Phelps’ sponsors.
Speedo, Hilton Hotels, Omega and Subway are among the many sponsors who continue to support Phelps. However, cereal giant Kellogg Co. has decided not to renew a sponsorship agreement that will conclude at the end of the month, citing concerns about this incident in addition to his DUI conviction in 2004.
The story dominated the media for a week and people are still fighting. Proponents for the legalization of marijuana are urging smokers and users to boycott Kellogg products in response to them dropping Phelps.
The sheriff covering the case arrested eight people. The suspects were not questioned about where or from whom they got the drugs, but were asked instead about Phelps and his involvement in the incident. If convicted, these individuals could face up to 30 days in jail along with a $200 fine. The nation is paying attention to what seems to be the biggest possession charge of all time. How else could we explain the massive media coverage it has received?
All this effort, time, tax dollars and police overtime has been spent trying to get a suspect to say that he or she saw Phelps smoking the pipe so they can stick him in jail for a month. Is locking Phelps in a cell for a day the pinnacle of police success in South Carolina? Police should not be spending so much time on a possession charge; they should be focusing on crimes against people, such as rape, robbery, assault and murder. These are the crimes that police should be devoting time to investigate.
It is unconscionable that the sheriff has continued to press the issue and keep it in the public spotlight. There are so many other stories out there that affect millions of Americans, but so long as we as consumers who are enamored with our celebrities, tabloid material like this drivel will continue to permeate the American media. When I look around my lecture halls and classrooms, more people are tuned in to TMZ.com or PerezHilton.com than looking at lecture slides. The things that we have come to regard as relevant news these days is just embarrassing.
Why do we even care? When the story broke, we quickly rushed to judge Phelps and whether or not he should be a role model. Every other story seemed to be dwarfed in the minds of the public. In that time, our federal legislatures fought over a huge spending bill, the biggest since the New Deal, to bail this country out of its worst economic depression since the 1930s. State legislatures are still not finished drafting a budget for this calendar year. State workers are having their pay cut and, as The Los Angeles Times reports, over 40 shootings have occurred that have lead to more than a dozen deaths. None of these events received the kind of attention given to Phelps.
I doubt if this drug story has changed any opinions. Will you, Joe Smoker, stop altogether because the UC Irvine Police Department might chase you down? Are you morally inclined to stop smoking because it is against the law? How about because it’s a bad influence on the kids? If all the D.A.R.E. campaigns in elementary school, lectures from parents, teachers, coaches and the media have not swayed you by now, then publicly denouncing Phelps has no real purpose other than to further the public profile of those involved. As long as we reward this dishonesty with face time, nothing will change.
Harry Nguyen is a third-year biological sciences and criminology, law and society double-major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.