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Michael Phelps Teaches Us A Great Lesson

Kevin Sullivan, former Assistant to the President Bush for Communications, former Vice President of NBC Sports, former Vice President of the Dallas Mavericks (and a lot more under his belt), put together an excellent Keynote Speech at the 2009 UF Sports Law Symposium. In his concluding remarks, Sullivan used a PowerPoint Presentation to demonstrate how important having a good PR strategy can be for building and maintaining an athlete’s good image. He used Michael Phelps as an example and revealed magazine covers that did a good job boosting Phelps’s brand and those that had a negative impact on his image and future earning potential through high-paying sponsorships. What do you think Sullivan said to himself when he saw this photo of Phelps?

Michael Phelps - What A Dope

That his image was hurt beyond repair? Probably not. Sullivan is a pro at damage control and mentioned that Michael Vick is a prime example of what not to do when faced with an accusation that cannot be avoided. Instead of deny, deny, deny or totally keep your mouth should, admit that you did something wrong, apologize for the action, and promise (and follow through with the promise) that it will not happen again. Do this as soon as possible. While all of us think that Phelps is an idiot for allowing a periodical to take a photo of him smoking marijuana, perhaps lit via a hemp wick (I’ll leave it up to you to decide if he should or should not be smoking marijuana in the first place, and would him having, say, for example, a valid Missouri MMJ card have any impact on what the ramifications would be for sponsors and the likes?), he and his advisors were smart enough to institute strong damage control measures immediately after the pictures hit the newsstands, airwaves, and the blogosphere. Here is the official apology from Phelps:

“I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I’m 23-years-old, and despite the successes I have had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner that people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public – it will not happen again.”

Because of the quick response by Phelps, I believe that he will still be marketable for years to come. He will also benefit from instituting corrective measures like reaching out to troubled youths who smoke marijuana regularly, donating to charities, performing philanthropic work, etc.

My intention in this post is not to give athletes a Don’t Go To Jail card, allowing them to participate in illegal and immoral conduct and escape any negative ramifications. Instead, it is to inform athletes and their advisors that people slip up, all of us make mistakes, and it is important to prepare for those potential mishaps before they happen. Phelps and his team were well prepared for this potential image ruiner, and seem to have attacked the situation as best as they possibly could. This situation and the legalization of cannabis in certain areas does beg the question though, if Phelps was to have ordered some cannabis from somewhere like this bcbudmail, and could, therefore, prove it was medicinally legal for some reason, would there have been such an outcry? Would it have been such an “image ruiner” or are the times changing as to what people view as medicine? It seems as if this will be an ongoing argument within the world of sports but this obviously isn’t about a doping scandal, but rather what recreational activities athletes like Phelps should and should not be allowed to participate in. We already know about the changing tide when it comes to cannabis. There are a growing number of groups that are starting to see the plant as an alternative medicinal option, with a lot of potential in the health and wellbeing world. In a few years, maybe even 10, we will probably see a cannabis dispensary or two popping up throughout the country. And countries like Canada have been rambling on for years about legalizing cannabis. The real question you probably want an answer to is, is someone like Phelps allowed to take part in these types of activities?

Phelps will be helped out by the fact that the photos broke a couple of days before the Super Bowl. It got a couple of days of press over the weekend, but now everyone has moved on to the amazing game between the Steelers and Cardinals, Kobe’s miraculous performance vs. the Knicks, etc. Phelps and his team should be very happy and realize that they got lucky as well. Most importantly, Phelps needs to use this as a learning experience. One stupid move means a lot more to Phelps than it does to most of us. It is nice to see the IOC and many of his sponsors sticking behind Phelps after his comments. Phelps may no longer be projected to make $100 million in endorsements. Maybe now it will be $80 million. It is still better than the huge decrease that could have resulted had his team acted improperly after the images of Phelps smoking marijuana hit the general public.

By Darren Heitner

Darren Heitner created Sports Agent Blog as a New Year's Resolution on December 31, 2005. Originally titled, "I Want To Be A Sports Agent," the website was founded with the intention of causing Heitner to learn more about the profession that he wanted to join, meet reputable individuals in the space and force himself to stay on top of the latest news and trends.

Heitner now runs Heitner Legal, P.L.L.C., which is a law firm with many practice areas, including sports law and contract law. Heitner has represented numerous athletes and sports agents as legal counsel. He has also served as an Adjunct Professor at Indiana University Bloomington from 2011-2014, where he created and taught a course titled, Sport Agency Management, which included subjects ranging from NCAA regulations to athlete agent certification and the rules governing the profession. Heitner serves as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where he teaches a Sports Law class that includes case law surrounding athlete agents and the NCAA rules.

6 replies on “Michael Phelps Teaches Us A Great Lesson”

As a mother of a 27 year old and a16 year old, while I would be dissapointed with his judgement, he is not and should not be a role model to anyones’ child. He himself is still a developing young man and for petes sake he is human, who has made a mistake and may make more. Who among us has not made mistakes in our youth. Get off his back and keep your stones in your pocket unless you or one of your kids crack one of those windows in your glass house.

Michael Phelps is an American Hero. He stood tall and made America proud at the Beijing Olympics. This is how America treats its heroes, we forget all of the hard work Michael Phelps did to achieve his task, we forget the pride we felt with the each gold medal, we forget how Phelps helped America to be competitive against a Chinese when they planned on winning all of the golds, we forget all of those things and hang a man for smoking glass pipe at a party. That is our shame; America cares little for appreciation and loyalty but is absolute when it comes to misplaced morality. In short America often finds it easier to tear people down and point fingers than it does to recognize freedom and practice good will. I hope they do try to arrest Michael Phelps to further shed light on our hypocrisy and maybe stir the good people of this country up enough to stand up for their friends and neighbors being persecuted in this “drug War”.

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