By Dan Neil
Super-swimmer Michael Phelps returned to big-time advertising Sunday with a TV spot for Subway titled “Be Yourself.” Oh, the irony.
Surely Phelps—14-time Olympic gold medalist and endorsement juggernaut — was being only himself, only human, when he was photographed in November hitting a bong at a party at the University of South Carolina. That photograph, first published by the British tabloid News of the World in January, resulted in a three-month competition ban and cost Phelps a reported $500,000 deal with Kellogg. The swimmer promptly issued a sniveling apology, copping to “regrettable,” “inappropriate” and “youthful” behavior (doesn’t the latter want to excuse the former?). Phelps, 24, has more or less cheerfully dined on PR ashes ever since, in interviews with Matt Lauer, among others.
Interestingly, the apology from the world’s fittest stoner infuriated proponents of legal weed, who saw the episode as a missed opportunity to advance the cause. After all, if Aqua-Man smokes bud, how bad can it be?
This is the greatest Olympian of all time, a man chandeliered with gold medals on the cover of Sports Illustrated. His achievements mock the moral hysteria that traditionally rains down on marijuana.
Even so, the Phelps-bong scandal seems to have been safely put to bed, and now that it has, it’s worth asking, what have we learned? The consequences to Phelps — actually, the lack of consequences — suggest that something bigger than mere endorsement dollars is in play. It seems Phelps has moved the weed needle.