Monday, February 2, 2009

Michael Phelps—NOW He's a Real American Hero

Every now and then, when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard.—Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Michael Phelps, meet one of the good doctors, Hunter S. Thompson. Although, judging from that photo with the binger in your hands, you've already met.

I actually wasn't a huge Michael Phelps fan, until now. It's not that I disliked him. How could you dislike someone who has won 14 Gold Medals for the Stars and Bars? Furthermore, Phelps seems like a perfectly likable guy and is obviously an incredible athlete.

I'm just not a avid follower of the Olympics so I was closer to ambivalent than I was to being a fan. Like I said, until now.

Because I have a sneaking suspicion that a picture of everyone's favorite golden boy holding a bong as comfortably as if it were a fork is gonna set off a touch of hysteria (check—anything that can register even a blip on Super Bowl Sunday that isn't relevant to the game qualifies), several soccer kicks to a downed opponent, and then some honest dialogue when the sponsorship fallout doesn't materialize.

Oh, some will walk. Some will most certainly walk. And that's totally reasonable. Certain companies just can't be associated with illegality, drugs, marijuana, substance-abuse, etc.

But if you think this kid is gonna being going door to Madison-Avenue-door begging for alms, you're probably no stranger to the sticky green yourself.

When that happens (or doesn't), a bunch of people will realize the implications—that the advertisers are telling us the American public no longer really cares about weed. That a growing number (possibly majority at this point) lump it in with alcohol and shrug it off just as easily.

And they should.

As you may have guessed, I am no stranger myself. Did I just hear a gasp?

I've spent over 90 percent of my adult life in Northern California (anyone heard of Humboldt?). I went to high school in Marin County and college at Leland Stanford Junior University. Yeah, I've smoke several times and I've inhaled.

Sue me.

I was also an honors student in high school, was homecoming king, played six years of varsity baseball/basketball as a starter, was recruited by several Division-1 baseball programs, was recruited by several D-III (back then, I don't know what the equivalent is now) basketball programs, graduated from Stanford with a 3.3 GPA in industrial engineering, walked out of college into a job in the 2001 tech industry, and just graduated from the University of California at Hastings College of the Law.

Then failed the California Bar the first time around. Eh, nobody's perfect.

Let me drop another "bomb" on you. While I was at Stanford, I was a fraternity president. That means I was legally responsible for the actions of ~45 19-22 year-old men-boys. During my year-long rule, I had about 10 guys who hit the booze hard and often. I probably had an equal number of guys who walked around in a purple haze.

The Purple Hazers were boring as hell at times, but they caused no grief. The 10 boozers?

Dear GOD.

Fights, harassment issues with the opposite gender, property damage, and that's off the top of my head. And some, cough, personal recollection. More significantly, my house was no different than any of the social houses on campus—the Greek system wasn't huge in Palo Alto at the time.

Again, I want to emphasize that this was at, arguably, one of the finest institutions in the country. I don't say that to brag (much); I say it to emphasize this wasn't Party U. and it wasn't isolated. There were a lot of very smart, very accomplished people who did some very crazy drugs and used weed as a chaser.

Think of them as intellectual Michael Phelps's (is that how you pluralize Michael Phelps?).

For instance, while on campus during my sophomore year, I ran into a kid with whom I had partied a little in our freshman dorm. He was an insanely smart dude—I'm talking he had entire books of theoretical physics memorized, like Good Will Hunting. Anyway, he could switch it off and be fun when he wanted, but I hadn't seen him in a while so I asked him where he'd been. He'd switched majors to double in Electrical Engineering and Symbolic Systems—this hybrid between computer programming, linguistics, and complex mathematics where the ultimate goal (as I understand it) is to develop artificial intelligence.

I playfully asked when he found time to have fun and his reply? "I've discovered I don't need to have fun." Well, that blew my mind on several levels, but the upshot is that I saw him smoking bud on several occasions the previous year.

So I'm never surprised when so-and-so is "caught" inhaling. Would I be shocked if I saw Phelps knocking back shooters? Nope. So why would I be shocked to learn he smokes a little dope? I wouldn't be surprised to learn he's a pot-head.

After all, if the National Basketball Association and National Football League have taught us anything, it's that there is nothing mutually exclusive about weed and a supremely conditioned athletic body. And it's obviously not a performance-enhancer.

Judging from the stoners I've known, there is a real danger to your brain and motivation/effort.

But athletes like Phelps and Josh Howard and Ricky Williams don't need their brains in the true sense of the word need—obviously it's always a bad idea to impair your intelligence. And I'd imagine some people can resist a drug's deleterious effects more rigidly than others just like some can push their bodies past extremes that others cannot.

Would it be so surprising to find both in the same body?

And that's the worst-case scenario—that Phelps habitually smokes. We're not there yet; there's no reason to believe he's a stoner just like there's no reason to believe anyone photographed with a beer is an alcoholic. So who cares?

Look, is marijuana bad for you? Of course and so is alcohol. Does marijuana impair your judgment? Of course and so does alcohol. Is it addictive? Of course and so is alcohol.

I'm not trying to be flippant about a potentially dangerous substance. I'm trying to point out that this is another perfect example of our hypocrisy. I mean, Michael Phelps has a DUI from when he was 19—NINETEEN—and that didn't seem to be a huge deal. Why should this?

Shoot, an adolescent drunk driver is a hell of a lot more dangerous than some stoned, 23-year-old swimmer at a house party. Both to himself and to others (some co-eds might feel differently, but I was never a co-ed).

Nor am I trying to defend Phelps completely. But, if you're gonna crucify him, do it for stupidity. How can you think you'll get away with such a stunt especially now that everyone's damn phone is a camera?

That's the thing though—he's an athlete, not a politician or a world leader. We don't love athletes because they're brilliant or because they exercise excellent judgment. We love them because their bodies can do things ours cannot.

So I say again, who cares? Michael Phelps isn't perfect and he isn't the smartest guy in the world. Yawn. Water is wet and babies cry.

I'm betting I'm not alone in this sentiment and the rest of America is about to start getting that message. Courtesy of Michael Phelps. So now I'm a fan.

I've never book-ended an article with quotes—let alone by the same author from the same book. But Hunter S. Thompson knew far more than anyone has ever known or will ever know about demons, drugs, transcendent talent, and how society receives them when they surface in an individual. Why bother trying to beat the master at his own game:

In a closed society where everybody's guilty, the only crime is getting caught.

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