Recently I was chatting with a group of old friends on email about the Olympics. Of course Ryan Lochte's name came up as did Michael Phelps. There was a compare and contrast the decorated Phelps with the disgraced Lochte. The all-time sports fan JB said he was disappointed in Lochte and that character means so much for who he elevates to hero status as an athlete. Here's how I went off in response:
Deep down very few people care about higher ideals when it comes to sports. We collectively worship athletes so they have a distorted view of real life and are free to misbehave without much consequence. We get outraged at Lance Armstrong or Barry Bonds when they get caught, but no one is outraged when watching the rider ascend the mountain or hit the ball into the San Francisco Bay.
Alumni boosters call for the college football coach to be fired when he's 8-4, very likely these days because he refuses to cheat as aggressively as his cohorts. Perhaps he is great at developing 'character' in young men (just like the alumni benefitted so much from mentors during their college years), but fell a little short on the field. But we want his head on the block.
Michael Phelps leaves Brazil as the all-time Olympic hero, but we should reflect upon how his past transgressions were far more impactful than Lochte's folly. Statistics cited by MADD suggest that each DUI arrest represents ~88 occasions of drunk driving (obviously, since you have to first weave noticeably and second be seen in the act by a cop. What are the odds! well, 88-1 I guess). So Phelps put others' lives at risk literally hundreds of times with his entitled mentality and his substance abuse problem that he waited a decade to get help for. (Phelps DUI's were in '04 and '14), a waiting period that was surely enabled by his ability to perform for fans and sponsors in Olympics and other elite events.
As a public figure and default role model, Phelps did severe damage with his behavior. His first DUI punishment sentence was community service - talk to high school kids about drinking and driving. Knowing the particulars of the disease, it's virtually certain that he was still drinking and driving while talking to kids about not drinking and driving. Perhaps he was telling them to choose bong hits instead, as that was his 2009 landmark.
By comparison, Lochte did some shit that happens every single day with high profile athletes on college campuses. They get in a bind and break something, lie a bit to try and assuage, and sometimes get busted. It's not a big story. Furthermore, speaking of "overexaggeration", you could suggest that NBC did this with his story for the purpose of a salacious ratings grab.
The 30-minutes plus of prime-time coverage could have been pointed at high character athletes doing good things in real life, but we don't care enough as viewers. Oh, Lochte, hurt his young teammates who got yanked off the plane to take the rap in person and get popped for $11,000 before they could leave Brazil, that's for sure. But don't forget Brazil Olympic committee spokesperson himself instructed the world to give Lochte a break and move on.
I must admit that Phelps has redeemed himself wonderfully at this Olympics by speaking to the camera, for the first time ever in his career, with a bigger perspective than himself, by being lauded as an inspirational team captain, and by seemingly, for the first time ever in his career, getting his shit together in personal life. Prior to recent years he was self-absorbed, immature, and engaging in some of the most dangerous criminal behavior imaginable (long-term drunk driving).