The great Michael Phelps bong brouhaha may end up telling us more about all of us who comment on it than it tells us about Phelps. Reactions in the media have ranged from those who ask, "Who cares?" to those who insist that Phelps is a disgrace to the Olympic Games, America and himself.
Those divergent opinions have played out, among other places, in the pages of the Washington Post, where some of America's most prominent sports pundits have expressed decidedly different attitudes toward the Phelps incident.
Post scribe Sally Jenkins wrote in her column in Tuesday's paper that this is no big deal, and that we should just give Phelps a pass. That prompted a rebuke from former Post columnist Tony Kornheiser in the above video, and it prompted Post columnist Michael Wilbon to write this in Wednesday's paper:
I'm annoyed over reading my friend Sally Jenkins's column justifying that Phelps "periodically needs to bust out of the confines of the pool and of his too-coy image," because he already busted out in 2004, when he was caught drinking and driving.
The Big Lead writes today that it's becoming a black and white issue, and there may be some truth to that. But in the specific case of Jenkins, I don't think it's a racial issue so much as it's an issue of a journalist who loves certain athletes and is incapable of expressing an opinion of them that is anything other than gushingly favorable.
There are athletes Jenkins likes, and as far as she's concerned, those athletes are above the law. It's the same way with Marion Jones, the gold medalist who was convicted of lying to federal investigators about steroids and participating in a check fraud scheme. Jenkins thinks President Obama should pardon Jones, even though if Obama did so he would be disregarding the Justice Department's guidelines on pardons, which say pardons are to be granted after "demonstrated good conduct for a substantial period of time after conviction and service of sentence."
Jones has only been out of prison for a few months and is still on probation; she has a long time to go before it's a substantial period of time after the service of her sentence. But that doesn't matter to Jenkins, because once Jenkins has developed personal affection for athletes, she loses her ability to cover them with the healthy dose of skepticism that journalists need.
As far as the Phelps photo, I'm actually more sympathetic to Jenkins' point of view than I am to Wilbon's -- smoking pot just isn't that big a deal. But for the tone Jenkins takes in acting as though the rules don't apply to star athletes, Wilbon and Kornheiser are right to call her out.