The wrong lesson for Michael Phelps: Don’t take risks - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

The wrong lesson for Michael Phelps: Don’t take risks

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Posted: Saturday, February 14, 2009 4:02 pm | Updated: 12:57 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Michael Phelps, the 14-time gold medalist of this year’s Olympic games, has been suspended by the International Olympic Committee, stripped of his Kellogg cereal endorsement and is being threatened with arrest by the authorities in South Carolina.

Why? For toking on a marijuana bong during a party in England and having it captured by someone’s cell phone camera. Heavens to Betsy! The world must be coming to an end.

While no one should make light of breaking the law, I have to ask at what point we will return to reason in our response to minor transgressions especially when they are committed by those to whom young people look for inspiration and leadership?

It is the nature of those who aspire to greatness to take risks in order to get there. When it comes to those still maturing into adulthood however, understanding the balance between wise and foolish risk is sometimes unclear. With someone who is used to taking great risks to get ahead, the rush of venturing into the unknown becomes part of the excitement. But after achieving the feat and walking the tightrope of world renown, who, they might think, should care about an indiscretion here or there?

Unfortunately, with the pace and intensity of today’s society, we increasingly thrust young people who achieve something significant onto the national stage without informing them of how their every action and word will be scrutinized by those who look to them for inspiration.

Sure, we can throw lots of examples in front of them of how others have made poor choices. But they may not be ready to hear it. After all, these actions in many cases are impulsive responses to questions and suggestions with which they are not used to dealing. On top of this, of course, they can so easily come in contact with someone who does not have their best interests at heart. So what does this teach the youth of our society about the price of pursuing great things?

The Phelps situation is one more example of how quickly those we hold in high esteem are cast asunder by a minor indiscretion. It’s almost as if society expects perfection in return for granting fame. While any number of celebrities lose their luster after a series of foolish acts, the fragility of Phelp’s situation is particularly poignant.

In August, he was thrust expectedly onto the world stage for achieving a record-breaking feat. A mere 15 weeks later, his reputation is besmirched and his fledgling career is threatened by a crowd-enabled media that has one grainy photograph leaked to them by a celebrity-seeking party goer.

This is then compounded by a sheriff in South Carolina who assures us that he will spend taxpayer dollars bringing this potential lawbreaker to justice. Does anyone doubt that someone on the University of South Carolina campus will come forth with a story about a pot-smoking Olympian with whom he or she once shared a bong? Of course, the details will be somewhat hazy.

It goes without saying that our nation is starved for competent leaders who can capture the imagination of our emerging generation. But if we hold them all to an unachievable standard, none will qualify. Will this not then discourage others from even trying?

How many young leaders do we dissuade from running for elected office, for instance, because they conclude that their lives cannot stand up to the merciless scrutiny that we impose on public leaders? How many bright young achievers do we discourage from taking risks for fear of the public repercussions of failure?

We watch many of our heroes and leaders raked over the coals for minor indiscretions and think, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” But then we can’t resist the urge to read every tidbit about the incident and analyze it endlessly with our friends. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t look to heroes and leaders for inspiration and yet expect them to be perfect in all aspects of their behavior. We’ll be disappointed every time.

As a society, we present young leaders with a choice. They can choose to spend long hours and enormous energy pursuing their dreams recognizing that one inevitable slip of the tongue can severely damage their accomplishment once achieved. Their alternative is to walk away and find a less public role in life. That is a lost opportunity for both them and society as a whole. Let’s get some reason and perspective back into the system. We’ll all benefit from the outcome.

Robert W. Wendover is director of The Center for Generational Studies in Aurora, Colo. Contact him at

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