PR Experts, Swim Community Unsure How Phelps' Drunk Driving Charge Will Impact His Image -- November 10, 2004
By Phillip Whitten
PHOENIX, November 10. MARKETING and PR consultants are unsure how Michael Phelps' arrest last week for DUI will impact the 19 year-old superstar's marketability, but both analysts and members of the swimming community with whom we spoke agreed he will -- and should -- pay some price for his actions.
Phelps, who won an unprecedented six gold and two bronze medals in the pool in Athens last August, allegedly drove his 2005 Land Rover through a stop sign in Salisbury, Maryland, at about 11:30 last Thursday night, an action that ultimately led to his arrest.
Phelps was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol, driving while impaired, violation of a license restriction and failure to obey a traffic control device, police said. He signed the traffic citations and was released shortly after 1 a.m. Friday.
Police described the Olympic star as "fully cooperative" during the incident. They said Phelps' Land Rover was released to a friend who had not been drinking.
Police would not say whether Phelps took a blood-alcohol test and, if he did, what his blood-alcohol level was.
Under Maryland law, driving under the influence of alcohol is punishable by a maximum of a year in jail, a $1,000 fine and 12 points on a driver's license for a first offense. Driving while impaired carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail, a $500 fine and eight points for a first offense.
To his credit, Phelps immediately acknowledged his mistake and took full responsibility for it.
"I made a mistake," he said in a telephone call to The Baltimore Sun.
"Getting into a car with anything to drink is wrong, dangerous and unacceptable. I'm 19, but no matter how old you are, you should take responsibility for your actions, which I will do. I'm extremely sorry for the mistake that I made."
He declined to answer further questions, including whether any of his endorsement deals are in jeopardy.
Marketing gurus agreed unanimously that the arrest definitely will tarnish Phelps' image in the short run, but differed on its long-term impact.
The Sun interviewed several such experts. One, Ryan Schinman, president of the Platinum Rye Entertainment consulting firm, said the arrest is "a huge blow," even if Phelps is never convicted.
"'He made a name for himself not only in the pool, but with his squeaky-clean image, which is hard for corporate America to come by these days,' said Schinman, who consults for Fortune 500 companies.
"Phelps' endorsements from such 'family-oriented' companies as McDonald's could be jeopardized because they likely contain morality clauses, Schinman said. But he added that some companies may make allowances because no one was injured."
In contrast, Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., another sports marketing and consulting firm, said that he doesn't think Phelps' current endorsements will be affected.
Still another analyst, Mark Lepselter, president of New Jersey-based Maxximum Marketing, said the long-term impact will be minimal so long as Phelps doesn't have future problems.
"'For now,' Lepselter said, 'I don't think this is going to be a major blow to his career ... . I don't think there are many people who have not made some mistake along those lines when they were 19.'"
Lepselter's comment was echoed in conversations with Masters swimmers at yesterday's Brophy Masters practice: "If everything I'd done wrong at 19 had been on the news," one 30-something swimmer said, "I doubt that I'd ever have had a future.'
While most of the swimmers were willing to cut Phelps some slack due to his age, all agreed that drunk driving was a serious violation and not something to be treated lightly. "Fortunately, no one was hurt," said one swimmer between sets, "but it would be a terrible mistake if Mike were allowed somehow to get away with this without any punishment at all." "I agree," chimed in her lane-mate. "I'm not saying he should go to jail, just that he should suffer some serious consequence for his behavior. We would be doing Michael a disservice if legal maneuvering led to the charges being dropped.'
"Michael," lamented one self-described 'Phelps phan,' "you're rich, baby. If there were no sober friends to drive you home, you can afford a cab!" In an interview with The Sun, Bob Bowman, Phelps's longtime coach spoke about the pressures that come with celebrity.
"When you're Michael Phelps, you don't really fit in anywhere," Coach Bowman said. "You don't fit in with adults just yet. You're still 19. You don't really fit in with kids your own age who are in college. It's very hard to know where you are in the scheme of things."
Bowman said he hopes last week's incident will serve as a learning experience for Phelps and others.
"Nobody should feel sorry for him because he chose his behavior that night," Bowman said. "But I hope people can stand behind him when he's down just like they stood behind him when he was on top of the world."