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The Boy Behind the Wheel

Sep 30, 2014  - Casey Barrett

This time it’s different. It’s already being lumped in with his past two public transgressions, but those two past offenses belong in a separate category. A dumb decision at 19-years-old, getting behind the wheel after a few too many? Not okay, but not the end of the world either. You and a million other dumb-ass teens have done the same thing, and you hope it’s lesson learned. You hope you recognize how lucky you were that no one got hurt. Transgression number two: getting caught smoking from a bong at age 23. It’s hard even to dignify this with an ounce of judgement. If you have a problem with a kid in his early twenties smoking weed at a party, well then, less power to you.

But this time, for Michael Phelps, it’s a different story. He didn’t get caught making a teenager’s mistake, and he didn’t get caught puffing on something that’s soon to be legal in every state any way. This time, Michael Phelps did something deserving of judgement and the harshest of words. He got shit-faced, climbed into his Land Rover, and sped almost 40 miles per hour over the speed limit, charging through the Fort McHenry Tunnel, going 84mph in a 45mph zone, swerving over the double lines as he did it. Then, when stopped, the officer immediately noticed Phelps was plastered. A sobriety test proved it: it’s been reported that his blood alcohol level was almost twice the legal limit.

Then he was arrested, charged, released, and sent sulking home in shame and fear, as Michael Phelps, Inc. spun into Code Red.

Before making clear why this time it’s so different, a note to the moralizing masses: I don’t think Michael Phelps has a drinking problem. I don’t think he’s off the rails or out of control in any get-this-kid-to-rehab sense. I don’t judge him for getting a DUI at 19, nor for unwinding with a bit of weed. And I certainly don’t judge him for enjoying a few drinks. Lord knows I enjoy bending an elbow too. I’ll be as permissive as you like when it comes to recreational drug use, as well. You can judge me for that, I’ll accept my choices, and others’ too. But here’s where unflinching judgement is due:

When you get into your car, blitzed, and blaze down the highway going so far over the speed limit that it qualifies as reckless endangerment. What does that term mean? Well, according to Maryland state law, “this behavior is seen as reckless because it unnecessarily endangers not only your life and the lives of your passengers, but also the lives of other innocent people on the road around you.”

Basically, you’re not just risking your own life due to your own reckless choices, but you’re risking the lives of everyone around you. This is something that they tend to you remind you of a lot after one’s first DUI arrest, when you get the old slap on the wrist, with probation and plenty of scared-straight classes.

Speaking of scared straight, back in high school, when I was swimming for NBAC at Meadowbrook just like Phelps, I lost a friend in a drunk driving accident. The kid was 17. He left a party plenty drunk, and flipped his car over a bridge. I’ll never forget talking to his devastated father at the wake, as he made the rounds through a bunch of dazed teary teenagers, doing his best to keep it together. You probably have a similar story. Sadly, most of us do. Did that keep us from drinking when we got to college? Hell no. But did we think twice before we hopped behind a wheel and sped off into the night with a head full of booze? Damn right.

That’s not to say we always made the right choices. No one does. But when you’ve already been busted and shamed once, and then reminded in excruciating detail how bad those decisions can turn out, then one starts to lose sympathy for your mistakes in a hurry. Going 39mph over the speed limit when you’re hammered does not make you an alcoholic or an evil person. It makes you a selfish little shit without regard for the lives around you.

That’s why this time is different. Phelps is well aware of the stakes. He’s made high stakes his career. But outside of the pool, he’s proven, in public transgressions and private ones, that he’s not very good at handling himself on dry land.

The phrase “role model” is always tossed around when star athletes screw up. Like you, I tend to roll my eyes when I hear it. It’s a joke, to label the athletically gifted as role models. Because Michael Phelps is the greatest who ever lived at swimming across a swimming pool does not make him a role model in any sense of the word. In fact, on dry land, he’s done a pretty good job at proving he’s not worthy of the label. Do you remember that great “I Am Not a Role Model” Charles Barkley commercial from back in the 90s? Barkley, like Phelps, has been arrested for a DUI. It didn’t make him a worse athlete, or a less colorful commentator. It just proved that he made a selfish, dumb-ass choice, and he should face the consequences like anyone else.

Before this script is hijacked by Michael “needing help” or “recovering” as he tries to sorry and spin away this event, let’s put it in the wider context of the superstar and his circle. These are men, man-childs, really, who are used to controlling their environments. They impose their prodigious will, and they get the results they want. They do not hear the word ‘no’ very often, and the ones who dare to utter any criticism are soon excommunicated from the flock. They would never believe the phrase “you can’t.” Their response, the one that makes them so damn good on the field of play, is: I’ll show you.

A lovely quality when you’re a master of your environment, the best ever, with a will and a talent that has inspired billions. But it’s a very ugly quality indeed when you step away from the play, get hammered, hop in your fancy car, and charge down the highway putting every life in your wake at risk.