Celebrity slip-ups shouldn't be excused

Tuesday, February 10, 2009 | 12:34 p.m. CST

Recent weeks have seen us subjected to the selected wrongdoings and social faux pas of celebrities who, as is the norm, have issued fervent apologies for betraying the trust of their constituents, their fans and their adoring public, which undoubtedly includes mom, dad and the family dog. The latest “victims” include politicians who failed to pay income tax, the usual Hollywood crowd (notably Miley Cyrus and Vanessa Hudgens who have issues of proper dress/undress) and Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps’ photo op with a bong.

Personally, I find these teary and hand-wringing apologies to be self-serving and patently phony pleas for forgiveness — in reality, their only true regret is getting caught. Admittedly, people do make mistakes, and while most do deserve a second chance, the idea that the rich and famous are able to avoid personal responsibility merely through the shedding of crocodile tears leaves most of us a bit cold.

The incident garnering the most ink is the tabloid shot of Phelps allegedly smoking pot at a University of South Carolina party. While my interest in the sophomoric antics of self-indulged celebrities falls somewhere between burn before reading and ennui, my attention was stimulated by an hour-long discussion between one of our local afternoon radio talk show hosts and his call-in participants concerning the Phelps incident.

The sometimes spirited dialogue covered a wide spectrum of opinions — those most-voiced concerned celebrities as role models, the effect on Phelps' career as an Olympian and his future in product endorsements, his personal guilt or innocence and the blatant sensationalism of tabloid journalism in airing it. One facet of the discussion that the host, most of the audience and I agreed upon was the utterly reprehensible and contemptuous conduct of “News of the World,” a tabloid that is also England’s largest selling Sunday newspaper, in publishing a photograph and a story that's sole purpose was the destruction of a human being’s reputation. That is journalism at its seamiest.

Where I parted company with the host and with a number of the callers was in the culpability of Mr. Phelps, as well as in the consideration of his youth in the assignment of ultimate responsibility for the act. I am fully aware of the groundswell of opposition in some quarters for legalizing marijuana in particular and all drugs in general; however, until that decriminalization day arrives, users remain subject to the laws as written and the consequences earned by ignoring those statutes.

I understand that this opinion is at odds with those of my libertarian friends, as well as the wishes of dedicated pot smokers; nevertheless, it has yet to be demonstrated that depriving anyone of cannabis is either life-threatening or injurious to public health. And, as for the inevitable comparison to alcohol abuse, is a victim any less dead or injured whether struck by a drunken or marijuana-impaired driver?

The idea of granting absolution for misdeeds because of the youth of the individual involved has received a lot of traction in the print media as well as from the participants in talk radio. “After all, the boy is only 23, cut him a break” is a common refrain. I believe it relevant to interject a demurrer at this juncture — at this very moment, there are 23-year-old men commanding platoons of Marines and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is normal to feel a twinge of regret that, through a lapse of judgment, he has lost a lucrative endorsement with Kellogg and may forfeit more from Speedo, Pure Sport, Visa and others. But, at the time Michael Phelps came to mutual agreement with the sponsor, he obviously promised, as part of the contract, to comport himself in a manner befitting the example the company desires in those promoting their product.

For example, the most visible endorsement of a product by athletes is portrayed by their appearance on the Wheaties cereal box. Over the years, The Breakfast of Champions has featured the likes of baseball’s Hank Aaron and Stan Musial; Olympic Champions the Rev. Bob Richards and Bruce Jenner; and football’s Johnny Unitas and basketball’s Julius Irving. It is not difficult to fathom the reticence of a parent in buying a product endorsed by one whose public behavior is subject to question.

I hope Michael Phelps overcomes and learns from his missteps; nevertheless, he is responsible for his actions and their consequences.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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