Michael Phelps has apologized for his latest act of youthful “behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment” and ducks as the furor created by it subsides fairly quickly. After all, the story came to light (and was almost lost) during the gala of the Super Bowl. He’s apologized quickly and the repercussions will probably be fairly mild for the Olympic (and advertising) golden boy.

Yes, he hit that bong. No, it wasn’t the end of the world.

Sure, some parents may still be up in arms. Is he to be hailed as a role model to our youth? Well, I’d at the very least question his bong technique. Look, heroes sometimes have feet of clay. For everyone who asks, when these sort of pop cultural transgressions occur, “what will I tell my children,” -sometimes you have to explain to your kids that your hero made a mistake. Just like sometimes you have to explain that you don’t have to do everything any person does. In other words, you tell them the truth and you help them learn to discern.

Here’s the issue on my brain: Michael Phelps had a DUI four years earlier. He came out then, in front of the story, took ownership of what he did, sounded just as sincere, and promised it would never happen again. He took responsibility and he didn’t dodge the issue behind a scripted wall of lawyer-speak. He was slick, he was polished, he did all the things we want people to do. And let’s face it, America is a pretty forgiving place for the truly contrite. So what’s my beef?

We all have friends like this. Those who can’t get out of their own way, cycle into some self-destructive spiral or at least continue to make bad choices that you can’t save them from. You have to question their judgment, their ability to step back and make good decisions. It helps no one to continue to enable such poor behavior, much less kowtow to it. At what point do we start to question someone’s character? At what point do apologies become meaningless?

Because, seriously, you are a high profile figure, paid to endorse products, yet you place yourself in situations where you can have your picture taken hitting a bong?

Let me go at this another way. My two boys, Malcolm and Reese often fight. In an effort at good parenting (read: to get them to be quiet so I can continue watching television in peace), I make them apologize to one another. Of course it is done through gritted teeth, but we go through the motions of reconciliation in the hope that it takes. We can have the language of sorry, but we have to learn the practice of sorry. We need to see it lived out for it to mean anything.

Yes, the famous, the rich, the talented tend to get a pass. He may get a slap on the wrist, a stern talking to of some sort, but for the most part, Michael Phelps is going to get a pass. What we have is a great swimmer practiced at the art of apology. I hope, for his sake, that he means it this time.

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