Michael Phelps apologized over the weekend -- and had to leave Tampa before the Super Bowl! -- after a photo was published in the London tabloid News of the World that showed him using what appears to be a marijuana bong during a party at the University of South Carolina three months ago.
We'll leave aside for a moment whether the act itself is that big a deal. It is illegal and can bring a number of consequences because of that, etcetera, but that isn't the point here.
Someone at the party decided it would be cool to take a picture of the Olympic hero having a toke and then that someone, or someone else -- because the photographer just had to send the shot to everyone he or she knew -- decided this was not just a goof, but a money-making opportunity.
So, three months later the picture is the cover art in a trashy newspaper a continent away. No indication yet what the News of the World paid for the image, but it probably wasn't much. A lot less than Phelps will pay for it in endorsements and speaking fees and the like.
His fault? Absolutely. "Bad judgment," he called it, and there's no question about that. All it took was one jerk with a cellphone camera, and that's about as hard a combination to find at a college house party as stale nachos and bean dip.
But we wonder why the modern athletes don't hang around with the regular folks any more. We complain that they live in their gated communities and travel with a protective entourage when they step out in public. In the old days, you could run into a sports star, maybe have a beer with him, hang out a little.
Today, it's a "gotcha" world. Everything a celebrity does in public can end up on YouTube or the cover of a newspaper halfway around the world. Think Babe Ruth would have made YouTube now and then? How about Jack Johnson?
I don't feel that bad for Michael Phelps. He messed up the whole time-and-place thing. I feel bad that we live in a world where someone thinks this is an amusing thing to do to someone else, and where it's good sport to peddle someone's pixilated reputation for a few filthy dollars.