Free Michael Phelps
Published on April 13, 2015 | by Alan Abrahamson
This space believes in making things simple and easy. So here it is: Michael Phelps should swim at the 2015 world championships in Kazan, Russia.
USA Swimming suspended Phelps for six months in the aftermath of his drunk-driving incident in Maryland last September. That suspension has run, and he will open his 2015 season by swimming this week at a meet in Mesa, Arizona. In addition to that suspension, Phelps and USA Swimming agreed — and “agreed” is putting a spin on it — that he would not be on the U.S. team in Kazan. Now the time has come to fix that.
For every reason you can come up with to keep Phelps off the Kazan team, there are better reasons to send him.
First and foremost, there is this:
The American story is, and forever will be, one of redemption. This is who we are. This is the classic, everlasting story of our country.
In the United States of America, we get not only a second chance, but a third, a fourth, a fifth and more.
If anyone has earned that chance, it’s Michael Phelps.
Phelps is one of the great sports heroes of our time, an imperfect human being — we all are — who has won 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold, inspiring literally millions of boys and girls and grown-ups, too.
About this there can be no debate.
Disclaimer: I co-wrote Phelps’ 2008 best-selling book. In writing this column, I have not shared even one word with him.
To recap how we got here, and why there must be reconsideration — not just for Phelps but for USA Swimming and even the U.S. Olympic Committee — that Phelps go to Russia:
On Sept. 30, 2014, Phelps was stopped by Maryland police going 84 in a 45 mph zone. His blood-alcohol level registered 0.14.
This was Phelps’ second DUI offense in 10 years.
For legal purposes, the first DUI, when Phelps was a teenager, was completely immaterial during the second case. For the record, he did 18 months probation. USA Swimming took no action.
In 2009, a few months after going 8-for-8 at the Beijing Games, Phelps, then 23, was photographed with his face in a bong. The picture created a major international stir. USA Swimming suspended him for three months.
Then came the arrest last September. Phelps was arrested amid the media frenzy ignited by the cases involving the NFL players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson and, to a lesser extent, the soccer star Hope Solo, each enveloped in a domestic violence incident.
To be clear, is Phelps super-fortunate no one got hurt? Or worse? Yes, a thousand times over.
Now: was Phelps involved in a domestic violence case? No.
Was it thus apples to apples? No.
Was it his incredibly poor judgment to get behind the wheel of a car, impaired, when the harsh media spotlight had turned on high-profile athletes? Yes.
Was there thus pressure on USA Swimming and the USOC, especially given the intensity of the focus on the Rice and Peterson matters, in particular, to bring the hammer down on Phelps? Absolutely.
Was Phelps in any sort of position, given that intensity, to argue at the time — even though he and everyone else involved knew that the best thing for him was to go to treatment, which was where he was, in fact, headed — about any of the elements of the six-month plus Kazan deal? Hardly.
Was there, as this space pointed out at the time, a rush to judgment? You bet.
When can it be said that a rush to judgment ever proves positive?
Now that time has run:
Rice and the Baltimore Ravens have settled his grievance for $1.588 million, and Rice is eligible to play again in the NFL.
Peterson is eligible for reinstatement on Wednesday.
The domestic violence charges against Solo were dismissed in January. A few days later, she was back in the news in connection with a drunken driving incident involving her husband, ex-NFL player Jerramy Stevens, that led US Soccer to suspend her for 30 days.
At the Algarve Cup in Portugal in March, a key tune-up for this summer’s women’s World Cup, who was that making the incredible late-game save to preserve her 81st international shutout in leading the United States over France, 2-0, for the title? For sure — Solo.
To be clear, one of the reasons to see Phelps swim in Kazan is what would likely happen in the pool. Reports from swim insiders say Phelps is hugely motivated — he is said to be practicing the way he did in 2007 and 2008 — and there is perhaps no sight in sports like Phelps roaring down the pool in the back half of his races.
There is also this: the U.S. team needs Phelps if it has any hopes of winning the 400 freestyle relay the way it did in Beijing in 2008. That’s the race he watched — from the stands — with dismay at the 2013 world championships in Barcelona. You only get so many chances to practice this relay before Rio in 2016.
Beyond that, there is this:
In a weird way, the September DUI arrest may have been the best thing that ever happened to Phelps. It got him to treatment. It forced him to look, and hard, at who he is and what he is doing.
In the months since leaving treatment, he has gotten engaged. He has been a model citizen. Everyone who has been in contact with him has remarked about how he has grown up.
In London, and that was before all this, Phelps was a veteran team leader at the 2012 Games. Wouldn’t you want Phelps 2.0, and this kind of hard-won life experience, on your team in Kazan?
Having reviewed the USA Swimming selection criteria, it is abundantly plain that it would indeed be a complex process — a number of dominoes would need to fall in just the right way — to get Phelps on the Kazan team. But, as always, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Now for some real-life politics, because there are plenty of intersecting currents to factor into the dynamic as well:
USA Swimming and FINA, the international governing body for swimming, are currently not — shall we say — on the best of terms. There are a variety of reasons why, but for this conversation it’s enough to leave it at this: things are business-like.
And to not have Phelps in Russia? FINA is not happy to begin with. Now you throw in the prospect that the best American swimmer ever would not be at its marquee event?
Everyone knows, meanwhile, that the USOC wants to put forward a Summer Games bid for 2024.
Not everyone knows, however, that John Leonard, who is an influential U.S. swim coach, has for months now been leading a largely behind-the-scenes campaign aimed at reforming FINA.
FINA has opted not to respond in public to the Leonard campaign.
The point of bringing up Leonard’s campaign here is not to debate its merits. It’s to put it in a different context.
The president of FINA, Julio Cesar Maglione of Uruguay, was just this past weekend elected interim president of the Pan-American Sports Organization.
Maglione is a key and dependable ally of International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach’s.
Maglione is 79. Elected FINA president in 2009, he was re-elected in 2013. Now there is serious talk that he wants a third term; to do so would require a rules change.
Leonard’s campaign is wondering, among other things, how this can be.
The answer: it’s all part of a complex geopolitical strategy involving interests beyond Maglione with close ties to the IOC president. This strategy might take all of a presumed third Maglione third term to play out. Or just part of it. In that scenario, which leadership at USA Swimming understands full well already, U.S. influence at FINA’s top levels might well be further considerably diminished.
This is no small matter. For revenue purposes, swimming is now what’s called a Tier “A” sport in the Olympic movement, along with gymnastics and track and field — in large measure because of the import of Phelps.
Leonard is doing what he justifiably feels is in the right.
In the meantime, the Leonard campaign is not doing a 2024 U.S. Olympic bid any favors — see above, FINA not happy with USA Swimming to begin with.
Understand always that Vladimir Putin made the first call to Bach when Bach was elected IOC president. These Kazan swim championships are a key element in Putin’s strategy to make Russia a world sports destination — along with Sochi 2014 and soccer’s 2018 World Cup.
To reiterate: to not have the biggest star in swimming at the biggest show in swimming? How in the world, come voting time for the 2024 bid, is that going to help the United States? Don’t fool yourselves. Russia is a big deal in the Olympic sphere and people have long memories when it comes time to vote.
Moving on once more:
Katie Ledecky, Missy Franklin and Ryan Lochte are awesome swimmers. But without Phelps, who in the United States is likely to watch a swim world championships — from Kazan or anywhere — on television?
Answer: virtually no one.
Need evidence? Lochte is, truly, a great guy. But there’s a reason his reality-TV show was quickly canceled.
If Phelps doesn’t swim in Kazan, it’s a simple matter to look at the calendar and see he would have to swim instead at the U.S. nationals in San Antonio. They’re Aug. 6-10. The swim schedule in Kazan runs Aug. 2-9. Why the two events run simultaneously is a long, and separate, story.
A San Antonio nationals would feature Phelps, Allison Schmitt, Natalie Coughlin and dozens of others — apologies — recognizable mostly to their coaches and parents.
Phelps has for more than a dozen years now said his goal is to grow the sport of swimming. How would limiting him to San Antonio accomplish any of that?
That’s not just a rhetorical question.
It’s way better all around for leadership at USA Swimming to take a deep breath, work out the complexities of the selection process, acknowledge the obvious and get the guy who virtually by himself since 2000 has elevated swimming into the top tier in the Olympic scene back where he belongs.
With the best in the world.
This entry was posted in Swimming and tagged Adrian Peterson, Allison Schmitt, FINA, Hope Solo, John Leonard, Julio Cesar Maglione, Katie Ledecky, Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, Natalie Coughlin, Ray Rice, Thomas Bach, US Olympic Committee, USA Swimming, Vladimir Putin. Bookmark the permalink.
I prefer the comment to this article:
Caitlin Garrison says:
April 13, 2015 at 7:32 pm
Below is a response I posted to swim swam concerning whether or not Michael Phelps should be reinstated at Worlds:
“The six month suspension that Michael Phelps got was meaningless. At worst he missed 2 Arena Pro events. He still got to train at OTC, which he did. At the Austin Arena Pro event he was on the pool deck. My understanding was the only people that are supposed to be on the pool deck are competing athletes and their coaches. At the American Short Course in Austin he swam an exhibition by himself. Again, isn’t he suspended? This was great for advertising his new Aquasphere suit, no one else to look at. That seemed to be a plus. He is not getting his stipend, big deal. That is a drop in the bucket to him. His exclusion from Worlds is really the only punishment he is really getting. This is his second DUI in addition to the bong photo. This is not one incident, it is a pattern. He is a 29 year old man. He was driving twice the speed limit, hammered, weaving in and out of traffic, at one point pulling in front of a semi. That kind of speed comes under the heading of reckless endangerment. Everyone who defends his punishment should look at that video. If anyone wants to put the blame on the US team being punished, don’t look at US Swimming (who has the unenviable task of meting out punishment), look at the person who is really at fault, Phelps himself. He needs to finish out his punishment. My dad always said part of being an adult is taking your punishment like an adult, not trying to get out of it like a little kid.
Then what of Tim Phillips? Even if Phelps only takes Clary’s 200IM slot, that still puts Phillips in an awkward situation. If he does not medal in the 100 fly, you can bet that there will be some who will blame him for not moving aside for Phelps. That is not fair to him, he did nothing wrong. This whole thing should have never been brought up in the first place.
There are some, including Natalie Coughlin who say his punishment is based on his celebrity. So what? He is the face of US Swimming, he should be held to a higher standard. He has said on many occasions he wants to be a role model. Is being a role model not screwing up? No, but when you screw up over and over and don’t take your punishment that is not much of a role model. Sometimes, being a role model is showing you are willing to take the hit. This is more than just more medals at Worlds. This is about doing the right thing. This is about someone who endangered others lives by his actions and taking responsibility for it. That is more important than medals.”
Now to your article:
No, in the US we do not get third fourth and fifth chances and more. The only people who get those are athletes that make a lot of money from people like you. The rest of us take responsibility like grownups or we pay the price. “The American story is one of redemption” oh please! You say Phelps has earned that chance. What has he done to earn it? After his court appearance, he expressed his desired to share his “mistake” with others so similar problems wouldn’t happen to someone else. It is now April. What has he done? There have been no interviews, no Anderson Cooper special, no meetings. Nothing. Business as usual it looks like. Where is the redemption you are talking about? What he has done so far he had to do or go to jail.
Heroes are in the military, in the firehouse and in the police force. Athletes are not heroes, unless they run into a burning building or step in front of a bullet to save someone.
The first DUI was not immaterial. He was considered a second offender this time. That’s why he got a suspended jail sentence and not just community service. He is lucky he was not charged with reckless endangerment because of his speed.
What does inspiring girls and boys to swim have to do with accepting punishment? If he swims at Worlds he has shown them that because of who he is he can get out of things.
What does Phelps not being involved in a domestic violence case have to do with anything? What does Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Hope Solo have to do with Phelps? Nothing. “Poor judgment to get behind a wheel of a car impaired when the media spotlight is on him”? Really? How about dangerous, self absorbed with no thought of the safety of others? Are you implying that it would have been OK if there were no media spotlight? Is that what you believe is important?
USA swimming felt pressured because Phelps was in trouble again, not because of Rice and Peterson. The first time USA swimming did nothing, with the bong photo they gave him 3 months. This time it would have to have been longer. That is just logic. There was no rush to judgment. In my opinion USA swimming seemed to wait before they really responded to the situation. What does Phelps being motivated and the sight of him swimming have to do with him not serving out his punishment?
“The US team needs Phelps”: so this is more important to you than him endangering others, than him taking responsibility for what he did?
You say the DUI arrest may have been the best thing that happened to him as it got him into treatment. Before he announced he was going to rehab every lawyer on the planet was on TV saying he would serve jail time if he didn’t go to rehab, so don’t give me that. What has his engagement have to do with anything? Model citizen? In what way? All of your political arguments do not excuse Phelps not serving out his punishment. Your values are skewed.
Your remark about “virtually no one” wanting to watch Worlds on television without Phelps is insulting and untrue. The reason Lochte’s TV show was cancelled was because it sucked. You can look at the first days ratings which were good and how they fell off to see that. You obviously did not do your research. Schmitt and Coughlin recognized only to coaches and parents? What a stupid remark. What does being in San Antonio have to do with Phelps growing the sport of swimming? He has already done that.
Most of your arguments in this article are specious. It is obvious that you are an apologist for Michael Phelps since you know him. This is not about medals, but about Phelps and USA Swimming doing the right thing. He needs to serve it out.
“Every single day I wake up and think of the decision that I made. It’s going to be there every day. It changed my life”- Michael Phelps to a group of high school students after his first DUI arrest.