Friday, February 13, 2009

Are Higher Expectations an Unwritten Contract Clause For Pro Athletes?

Michael Phelps smoked pot, and someone got it on camera. Now, he is disgraced, his wholesome image destroyed, and the media, who just months ago sang his praises, has been bashing him endlessly for his recent blunder (with headlines like "What a Dope.") Phelps is a mere 23 years old (the same age as yours truly), and if not for his extraordinary talent in the swimming pool, and the fact that he won eight gold medals at last year's Olympic Games in Sydney (oh yeah, he's that guy!), the truth is that his actions wouldn't be anything out of the ordinary. There are many 23 year-olds who have smoked their fair share of pot and have the pictures to prove it.

But, he is an extraordinary swimmer, and he did break the record for most gold medals won at a single Olympics, so his actions come with greater consequences.

My question is, should he be held to a higher standard? When he decided to compete in the Olympics and put himself in the public eye, did he also sign an unwritten clause that said his every action would be scrutinized? Do all pro athletes "sign" this clause? And what about college athletes? Where is the line drawn? These questions have been the subject of debate in many of my Journalism classes, in particular a class I took as a participant in the Washington Center's semester in D.C.

So, here are my athletes and Olympic athletes sign contracts. They sign on to play whatever sport they excel at, in return for a lot of money. Essentially, they choose that path and all that comes with it. Unless they've been living in a hole, they know the media attention that comes along with a career in the pros, and whether they like it or not, they know that they will be in the public eye.

College athletes, on the other hand, do not sign contracts. Sure, when they're recruited and given scholarships, there are certain expectations, but when it comes down to it, they're still college students...going to school for an education. (This could set me off on a tangent about college athletes leaving school before graduating to go pro, but I'll resist for now). College is a time for growing up. You learn a lot, not just in the classroom, and evolve into your (almost) grownup self. I guess the question is, should a 20-year-old college kid who hasn't finished maturing and learning be held to higher standards just because they are athletically gifted?

Clearly, this is a difficult and divisive issue. I don't have any answers, just thoughts on the issue, and I'd welcome other opinions. I just hope everyone remembers the amazing things that Michael Phelps did last summer. He is too talented and he worked too hard to have that taken away from him because he got caught smoking pot. Yes, he probably shouldn't have done what he did, especially knowing the number of young fans who look up to him. Parents are shaking their heads at him because now their kids are going to think that it's cool to smoke pot if Michael Phelps does it. But, there's another lesson here: people make mistakes. Even Olympic athletes who break records and win gold medals mess up sometimes, and life goes on.

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