Starr: Michael Phelps Needs to Grow Up

It is becoming something of an American Olympic tradition—and a decidedly unwelcome one. Every four years Michael Phelps goes to the Olympics and kicks butt in the pool. Then he comes back home and plays the fool.

A few months after the Athens 2004 Games, where he won six gold medals, Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence. A few months after the 2008 Beijing Games, where he won a record eight gold medals, Phelps got himself photographed with his mouth plastered to a bong at a University of South Carolina football-weekend party—a picture the British tabloid News of the World gleefully displayed on its front page under the headline WHAT A DOPE.

The speed with which Phelps apologized can be attributed to the fact that his remorse was virtually recycled from his 2004 statement: The familiar words cascade as fluidly as the swimmer rips through the water: "mistake," "bad judgment," "regrettable," "inappropriate," " unacceptable" and, above all, "sorry." Each time, Phelps has cited his age—19 then, 23 now—as an explanation for his dubious behavior.

Now, with the apology proffered, all they—Phelps, his agents, his sponsors, the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Swimming—can do is wait and see if the fallout from his foolishness and, more serious, his lawlessness, will damage the cash cow he has become. At the very least, his behavior puts a slightly new spin on his latest book, entitled "No Limits."

It's a shame that Phelps doesn't yet realize that, at 23, he no longer rates as "youthful." At the same time, most of his adoring public has no idea just how youthful Phelps really is, chronological considerations not withstanding. In NEWSWEEK's year-end issue, I wrote about how Phelps’s extraordinary performance in Beijing won me over completely. But I confessed to being a reluctant convert, describing Phelps as "callow" (a fancy writer's word for immature). And I described him as a lad "whose interview range didn't extend much beyond his eating habits and sleeping habits or, if he stretched, videogames."

In other words: something of a child. And what else should we expect from somebody who grew up in a swimming pool? Or as he so often puts it, his life consists largely of swimming, eating and sleeping. His is a life built for speed, not for personal growth. It's much the same for all those prodigies in so many sports, kids who surrender their childhoods to basketball, figure skating, golf, tennis and other pursuits. We think they must grow up as they travel the country or the world. But they seldom escape the gyms and arenas—no museum detours—except to head back to their hotels.

Though we should all by now know better, we continue to take these superior athletes and morph them into something grander, like American heroes. Nobody understands better than these "heroes" how absurd that is. And usually they even understand the responsibilities that attend to their new stature, that whole role-model thing. It isn't so much that they disdain it, as it is that they are incapable of measuring up—be they Michael Phelps at 23 or Charles Barkley at 45.

After several months of shore leave, Phelps is now safely ensconced back in the pool—presumably away from the booze and bongs—and training for the world championships this summer in Rome. While this latest folly is certainly a blemish on his all-American resume, most folks—certainly if the comments on the News of the World Web site are any indication—don't really care too much about a minor transgression by a major swimmer. At least, I suspect, he has paid all his taxes.

What we should care about, though, is our own unrealistic expectations for all these callow young men and women who happen to be sports stars. This is ultimately about us, an all-too-familiar case: "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me."