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athletes and drugs
cheating is one thing. but what if it's not?
by jeffrey d. walker

Suppose you are a football player... the American version. So, you're on a football team, and you have access to all the equipment for your team as well as your adversaries. And let's suppose that, on one particular evening before a game, you sneak into the locker rooms and switch all the shoulder pads and helmets for all the other players out for heavier, more cumbersome padding, saving the only regular set for yourself. Your switcharoo is not noticed until after the game of your life the next day.

Most people would agree that the above actions would be considered cheating, and that the actor is deserving of some punishment.

The same example could be altered in this way: you're a football player who, on one particular evening before a game, uses anabolic steroids to boost your strength and speed. After the game of your life the next day, you're tested and the steroid use is discovered.

Today, using steroids is also cheating, and punishment for use of steroids is common and accepted.

Now, say for example that you are a basketball player. Let's say you're a basketball player who smokes cigarettes. Smoking is known to have adverse effects on health. I won't go into a long recitation demonstrating this, but suffice it to say that if you were to quantitatively evaluate the health of a smoker versus someone else of similar age and similar physical shape who does not smoke, the non-smoker would probably have some advantage. So, if you had two basketball players of comparable attributes, with the exception that one smoked and one did not, and these two were to play one-on-one hoops, is the non-smoker a cheater?

Of course, the answer is no. We wouldn't punish a person who is advantaged because that person had the good sense to be healthy. If that were the case, then every athlete eating organic, home-cooked balanced meals should be penalized when they play against others who only eat at drive-thru windows. That doesn't make sense. Such treatment would be the equivalent of socialism for sports: bringing the best down to the level of the rest. That's not right.

Now how about this example: you're a swimmer, and you smoke marijuana. Again, I'm not going into a lot of detail here, but I think we can all agree that a swimmer who smokes pot is likely less healthy in comparison to a non-smoking swimmer, all other things being relatively equal. Based on the example above, we wouldn't punish the non-smoking swimmer for cheating.

Nonetheless, as we may now conclude from the recent Michael Phelps scandal, a swimmer who smokes pot will be temporarily suspended from his sport.

What message is this sending?

First of all, this is not a pro-pot smoking article. In 2004, I wrote a piece railing against a television PSA running at that time which, coincidentally, centered around a pot-smoking swimmer. I noted therein that I was not recommending people get high. I'm still not. This is not written in Phelps' defense like Ashton Kutcher did, and I'm not trying to start a Kelloggs boycott since they announced that they are not renewing Phelps' sponsorship based on the recent bong photo.

In short, this story isn't about defending, nor excusing what Mr. Phelps does with his bong. My question is, what message does USA Swimming suspending Phelps send?

I'm presuming that no one is going to post some link in the discussion here that shows a link between pot smoke and improved athletic ability. Marijuana isn't like an anabolic steroid, and so it can't be said that Mr. Phelps is "cheating" by smoking pot. USA Swimming admitted that Phelps is not being suspended for violating anti-doping rules: Instead, they state that they are doing so "... to send a strong message to Michael because he disappointed so many people, particularly the hundreds of thousands of USA Swimming member kids who look up to him as a role model and a hero."

A strong message. 3 months off.

Now, I don't know if Phelps smoked pot before winning a shelf full of gold medals at the Olympics. But, the bong photo and its surrounding controversy make it apparent that, he has smoked since that time, even after winning a host of gold metals, and after becoming a "hero."

Even after being on cereal, talk shows, SNL, and basically any other place "A" list stars would want to be, Phelps still smoked pot. And, besides a sponsor loss, the result is a slap on the wrist for 3 months. In the scheme of things, this will have little impact on Phelps.

But do those that USA Swimming is concerned about, the kids who look up to Phelps, are they getting the message? A message that no matter who you are, you'll face consequences?

Perhaps. But probably not really. If the message is that using drugs is wrong, a 3 month suspension isn't really a scary consequence. It's just seems like a vacation to smoke more pot.

If the message is really designed to save the disappointed kids who looked up to Michael as a hero, then what needs to be addressed is why someone at the pinnacle of his career would still need the artificial boost of a drug. Why does someone at the top need a vice? I'm not saying that there is a clear or simple answer to that question, but if we don't ask why someone at the top would use drugs, then why ever would your average, everyday athlete really question using? "Hey, Michael Phelps did it, and he's a champion. They only gave him three months off. Must not be that big of a deal."

I don't want to be a broken record, but like I said in 2004, the allure of drugs is strong. This Phelps episode, I believe, proves that. If we are to ever get at the minds of the nation's youth, this really needs to be discussed. Because simple after the fact shame and slaps on the wrists aren't frightening.

Instead of a dropped sponsorship, which won't financially cripple Mr. Phelps, and instead of a suspension, I believe that Kelloggs and USA Swimming should have taken this opportunity to start an open an honest conversation about the allure of drugs. Michael Phelps using a recreational drug epitomizes the fact that anyone, anyone, can be drawn in by drugs. Until how this occurs is really explored, it will never be understood. And until this is understood, I submit that people ranging from Michael Phelps to toddlers with kick boards will continue to fall into the traps of drug use.


A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.

more about jeffrey d. walker


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constructing the underdog, part ix: space
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sandra thompson
2.13.09 @ 8:28a

Since smoking pot is not "cheating," on what basis did USA swimming punish Phelps to begin with? Was it for immoral conduct, or not being a good role model? Do they punish everybody else guilty of "immoral conduct" or "not being a good role model?" Who decides what is immoral? Where's the set of standards for being a good role model?

Kellogg can do whatever it wants, but what it did was stupid and ineffective.

jeffrey walker
2.13.09 @ 11:19a

As noted in the article, the only quote from USA Swimming was that they did it "... to send a strong message to Michael because he disappointed so many people, particularly the hundreds of thousands of USA Swimming member kids who look up to him as a role model and a hero."

My point is, it doesn't send a message. There's NO message. A real message would have talked about why someone (especially with Phelps' success) is drawn to them in the first place. Only by talking about this will "kids" recognize the allure of drugs when they confront them, and perhaps, they'll be ready to avoid the pull.

tracey kelley
2.18.09 @ 8:26a

Obviously, Phelps was letting loose, and trying to be a "normal" guy around his friends. Two of the biggest reasons most kids try drugs.

What I pity the most about the guy his his naivete. He clearly doesn't have an understanding that everyone will always be watching him and ready to take advantage of certain situations, such as snapping a phone pic of him with a bong. He needs to seek professional help about how to constructively handle the business of being a hero and a role model, whether he signed up for those jobs or not.

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