Thank heaven for Michael Phelps.
It’s a good thing that the all-time Olympic gold-collecting champ seems virtually above reproach. We know that he has some familiarity with a bong that wouldn’t belong on a Wheaties box, but he seems, otherwise, a contented young father in responsible, family-man mode.
We can also thank Katie Ledecky for being a swimming Olympian from Phelps’ respectable side of the pool.
Otherwise, this is not a good moment for competitive swimming as a sport.
Ryan Lochte, Phelps’ supposed rival on the American Olympic team, caused an international incident by getting drunk in Rio with his buds, trashing a gas station and then claiming to be held up at gunpoint. At the moment when we might like to forget about him, he will show up Monday (Sept. 12) as a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars.”
This is very much in the tradition of “Dancing,” which makes a habit of deodorizing public reputations that have spoiled out in the sun (Bristol Palin, Paula Deen). Whatever Lochte’s able to do to overcome his public image as an archetypal spoiled American athlete, he’s going to have a lot of trouble proving he has more brainpower than you’d find in the average grapefruit.
If you ever have heard him try to talk, you know that he sounds mind-bogglingly knuckleheaded. I may be one of the few Americans who has some pity for the fellow. The guy has spent so much of his life soaked in entitlement and developing his talents in the pool that any intelligence or moral sense he might have had got hopelessly waterlogged years ago.
‘Rape culture’ defined
On the other hand, I have no sympathy for ex-Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, whose Friday release from jail after spending an appallingly short time there for sexual assault has made him the poster boy for “rape culture” in America – an astonishing ability to turn sexual assault into some variation of “boys will be boys.”
The Turner case was extraordinary, which is why the Internet took it in its jaws and wouldn’t let go. He was discovered by two students grinding against the half-dressed body of an unconscious woman behind a dumpster located between two campus fraternities. He ran. They chased and subdued him.
After Turner was charged with three sexual assault felonies, his father lamented “his life will never be the same one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20-plus years of life.”
I doubt whether Dan Turner meant that the way so many took it – as a “boys will be boys” wink at frat house “action” in the wrong place. What he no doubt meant was that his son’s acts over a 20-minute period shouldn’t override the 20 years of life leading up to that.
A typical father’s thought, but then it takes only a second to kill someone, and despite the disparity between that and the years of life that may have preceded it, we have no difficulty tossing murderers into the joint for life.
The night after the incident, according to the victim’s statement, Turner “said he didn’t know my name, said he wouldn’t be able to identify my face in a lineup. … He didn’t claim to hear me say one clear sentence that night.”
Turner himself said “I remember attending social gatherings with the swim team where these things were not merely accepted but almost encouraged for the freshmen to experience. … The swim team sets no limits on partying and drinking and I saw the guys take full advantage of those circumstances, while I was about to do the same.”
Turner faced 14 years in jail. The prosecution wanted him to serve six. He was sentenced to six months. He served three. “Rape culture” in America, thereby, stands defined forever.
Under the microscope
We pay so much more attention to everything jocks do now. But the amount of money and fame they feel entitled to is obscene. And nothing in their lives prepares them for it all.
They spend their lives developing their bodies, but their brains and senses of decency are sometimes pitched aside.
In a city with big league teams, we watch how it works with athletes soaking up tons of money and fame they’re not really prepared for when they’re standing at a bar with all manner of things (including hormones) sluicing through their bloodstreams. Their clumsy lurches in the wrong direction get noticed. And thank heaven they do.
The rules have changed. “Boys will be boys” doesn’t cut it anymore when the world is insisting that sports stars be men and start acting like it. We live in a world that knows that if you’re an abuser, the world may well eventually call you out, even if you’re Bill Cosby.
And yet the biggest public outcry seems to be reserved for a quarterback who refused to stand for the national anthem in protest of the way African-Americans are treated.
America virtually settled that issue in 1968, when Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists at the Olympics when the anthem was played. Smith insisted it wasn’t a “black power” salute but rather something more personal. In any case, it was an act of protest at an Olympics that many wanted to protest because among the countries invited was South Africa, then still living with apartheid.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – then known as Lew Alcindor – refused to try out for the 1968 Olympics as a political protest. Who better to explain clearly Colin Kaepernick’s patriotism in trying to make a point of his beliefs than a sports legend who understood how much sports could mean in the world after Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali?
As people are watching “Dancing With the Stars” Monday night, one thing will be true: The world of “boys will be boys” is dying as an ethic, even though the credo “knuckleheads will be knuckleheads” is proving to be distressingly hardy.