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Original Issue

Tarnished Gold?

A DUI bust could take Olympic champ Michael Phelps out of the fast lane

Last wednesday, Michael Phelps called the Boys and Girls Club in Aberdeen, Md.--near his home in suburban Baltimore and not far from where he had been arrested for DUI six days earlier--to ask if he could come in and speak to the kids. When the swimmer had visited clubs in the past, it was always to talk about all the hard work and dedication that had culminated in his winning six gold medals at the Athens Olympics. But last week Phelps wanted to talk about mistakes and consequences--which could include, in his case, the tarnishing of his golden boy image. He took questions from a group of 50 kids, getting emotional when he talked about how his arrest affected his family. Then last Saturday, Phelps made a scheduled appearance at the Baltimore Convention Center and apologized to a group of people attending a health and fitness expo. "I wanted to look people in the eye," Phelps said, "and tell them I made a mistake."

Such candor and contrition could keep Phelps, 19, free of long-term fallout from his arrest. (He has yet to enter a plea.) "Even class acts make mistakes," says Dean Bonham, owner of The Bonham Group, a Denver sports consultancy. "His future is still bright." To date, none of Phelps's sponsors--including Speedo, AT&T Wireless, Visa, Omega, PowerBar and Argent Mortgage, a group from whom he makes seven figures annually--have chosen to drop him. "I don't think anyone is going to terminate Phelps's contract," says Nova Lanktree of CSMG International, a sports marketing firm. "Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and Ray Lewis have been accused of things and haven't suffered much. But once is a mistake; twice is a pattern."

On Monday night Phelps appeared at the Golden Goggles awards in New York City, where he was named U.S. male swimmer of the year. "Michael doesn't need to lay low," says Bonham. "He should go on conducting himself as he has in the past." So Phelps humbly addressed the crowd and greeted hordes of well-wishers. Said NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, who was receiving an award recognizing him for his contributions to swimming, "This kid, under the toughest circumstances, is not only a winner in the pool, but a winner in life--and he still is today." --Brian Cazeneuve




Phelps's contrition should help his endorsement career