The folks at Sports Illustrated must be scrambling, reassessing their options. Who now gains the honor of the magazine's most prestigious cover? Who takes the place of Michael Phelps as 2004 Sportsman of the Year?
There can be no going forward with Phelps, the individual sensation of the Athens Olympics, after swimming's heretofore pristine poster boy was arrested last week and charged with drunken driving. It's not a flimsy rap. He's already apologized for his transgressions, the worst of them discovered after he was charged with failing to obey a stop sign.
In my mind, Phelps was a shoo-in for the marquee SI cover. He tied the Olympic record by medaling eight times in Athens, six gold and two bronze. He took on the toughest task available -- Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 200-meter freestyle -- when there were less challenging ways to try to equal or exceed the record of seven golds set by Mark Spitz.
As if that weren't enough, as if his athletic excellence and competitive drive hadn't already branded Phelps as extraordinary, he capped his conquest of Athens with a touching gesture of sportsmanship. He stepped aside in the finals of the 400 medley relay, conceding his spot to teammate Ian Crocker, who had been beaten in his individual events, yet to win a gold in the pool.
It all seemed too good to be true. And maybe it was. Turns out Phelps, all of 19, has his flaws after all.
This drunken driving charge is a sad and unforeseen development for a young man who was squeaky clean. Phelps was swimming's foremost pitchman, a staunch advocate for the sport. It irked him that swimming received widespread attention only in Olympic years, that three-quarters of the time it barely registers with followers of the American sporting scene, especially the media.
He had said that whatever he accomplished in Athens would be secondary to how well he promotes the sport as a whole. He opened wider the door to endorsement contracts, moving swimmers into the Madison Avenue mainstream, at least for a bit. He reasoned, and correctly so, that whatever positive exposure swimming receives, the more identifiable its athletes, the greater its chances of making inroads with a fickle public.
I'm guessing his ride on Maryland's Eastern Shore hasn't delivered the kind of publicity Phelps was striving to attain. I'm guessing this wasn't what he and fellow Olympian Amanda Beard had in mind when she told the Arizona Republic last month, "I think there's a lot we can do for swimming. People go to football or basketball to have fun. They tailgate. They drink. Those are some of the things we need to think about."
Phelps is no longer deserving of the SI cover, not with the timing of this incident about as bad as it could possibly be. The burden's on him to show his misstep was nothing but an isolated case, a single bad choice made by someone who, by the way, isn't hurting for cab fare. Or limo fare. Or old enough to be indulging in Maryland.
Until Phelps puts the shine back on his tarnished reputation, recognizing him as the year's top sportsman would taint the distinction. So the floor is once again open to nominations.
There's USA Women's Soccer, the heartwarming Olympic finish for the Fab Five. There's USA Softball, untouchable in Athens while rallying around coach Mike Candrea, who lost his wife just a few short weeks before the Games. There's the Boston Red Sox, who clawed back from the precipice of elimination to end 86 years of Beantown misery behind Curt Schilling and his blood-stained sock.
The competition's fierce, but it didn't have to be. It was Phelps' award to lose.
Which surely he did.