03/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Excuses, Excuses: The Real Problem With Michael Phelps

You have to admit, the pictures of Michael Phelps smoking a bong are pretty funny at first glance. Here was a guy who's been on the cover of Sports Illustrated with EIGHT gold medals around his neck but his backwards cap and shaggy goatee make him seem like any post-college dude who is still couch surfing until he can afford his own place. And I almost gave him a free pass, figuring that he'd had earned the right to slack off a bit--until his apology made it clear that he felt like he was entitled to one.

When I heard his excuse I flashed back to 2004 when Phelps was arrested for a DUI. He was 19, fresh off his gold-medal wins at the Athens Olympics and the magazine where I was working was honoring him for being a role model for young people. But just before the award ceremony, Michael got loaded and got behind the wheel of his car. He was contrite and humble when he stepped on the stage in front of a dozen other young rising stars. He apologized then too for not being a better role model, and vowed to do better.

Even though it was the first play in standard PR crisis management, I believed him. And this summer he sparked young people's imaginations with his phenomenal Olympic performance. I even think everyone cheered a little when he was rumored to be dating a string of hot girls--he deserved it. But his real regrettable behavior is not smoking pot, it's that he excuses himself by saying that he was acting in a "youthful" way. He is not just another dude, he is a phenomenally talented guy who young people admire and model themselves after. We need to enforce the idea, that actions speak louder than words, and not let him off the hook just because he's young and he expects us too.