Besides the Super Bowl, some of the biggest buzz in the last week has surrounded Michael Phelps and the photo that has come to light of him smoking marijuana at a house party in South Carolina.
It has touched off a debate in America with two distinct sides. It's either, "It's just pot. What's the big deal?" or "I don't care what it was. This guy is a role model with millions and millions in endorsements. He should be held to a higher standard."
I tend to come down somewhere in the middle. I will say that, yes, there are much worse things he could have done. (A DUI, maybe? ... Too soon?) He isn't linked to any performance enhancing drugs. What we have here is a young adult who got caught doing something stupid and illegal. I'd say many of us did our own stupid and illegal things at 23 years old.
But how many of us were America's golden boy at 23 years old? I was a recent college grad slaving away at a part time job loading trailers for UPS at that age. My face certainly wasn't on a Wheaties box.
So, yes, Phelps should be held to a higher standard. Don't we all remember the DUI about four years ago? Didn't Phelps say how sorry he was and how this sort of thing wouldn't happen again? I believed him then, and I want to believe him now. But it's much harder at this point.
I guess my lowest common denominator hope for Phelps is that he will at least choose to do irresponsible things like casual drug use in the privacy of his own home from now on. But I'd be much happier if he'd kick the pot all together.
The thing is, though, the Phelps scandal isn't even that big of a deal when you consider what's going on in Japan. According to an AP story you can read here, in the last six months, four wrestlers have been kicked out of sumo wrestling for smoking marijuana.
And you're thinking, "So what? I know plenty of fat guys who smoke pot. They kind of go hand in hand." Not so fast, though. It's a bigger deal than any sport we can imagine in our culture.
Sumo is an ancient sport whose meaning is as much about the ritual as it is about the actual contest. The tradition is wrapped up in Japan's national identity as well as the Shinto religion. The ring for competition is even considered sacred ground.
The competitors live in so-called "sumo training stables" or heya where they train, study and live very regimented lives under "masters" who lead them in ancient traditions.
So, when a sumo wrestler is busted for drugs, it's sort of like a Jesuit Monk, a U.S. soldier and an All-Pro quarterback all in one getting busted.
With that thought in mind, at least we can look at Mr. Phelps and not feel like our entire way of life has been shamed.