Michael Phelps: one toke over the line

“So I went up to the room and the first thing I saw was this big bong pipe.  You know, on this team, you could walk into their meal and get high just breathing.” — Steve Sabol of NFL Films describing the locker room of the San Diego Chargers football team in the early 1970s. Source: Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas.

Poor Michael Phelps.  At age 23, he scrambles to issue a public apology and most certainly has lost endorsement income over indulging in a personal indiscrection that Willie Nelson, well into his 70s, freely celebrates and embraces all the time.

So what’s the difference between the Olympic champion and the country singer?  It all comes down to their personal brands.

For decades, Willie Nelson has carefully cultivated the outlaw image.  He’s the red-headed stranger who has laughed at the music establishment and glorified hell raising and womanizing in his music and persona.  He’s openly lived a nomadic life of debauchery that would make Keith Richards proud.

On a live VH1 Storytellers album Nelson recorded with Johnny Cash in 2002, you can hear him softly chuckling when he and Cash discuss their choice of coffee and water to drink during song breaks.

“What’s going to happen to our image?” Nelson asks Cash in mock horror at the prospect of drinking water over booze or perhaps something even stronger.

But Michael Phelps is not Willie Nelson.  He’s one of the all-time great Olympic champions who stands for grace, power, and performance.  His success has come not through steroids or reckless living but through honest, hard work.  That’s certainly what his agent Peter Carlisle wants you to believe.

Phelps’s sin wasn’t smoking from a marijuana bong pipe.  His public apology is really for violating the promise of his personal brand — a brand that encapsulates the purity of form.  (By contrast, if he were “Wild Man” John Matuszak, we’d expect him to drink bong water for breakfast.)

Tom Peters once wrote, “Big companies understand the importance of brands.  Today, in the Age of the Individual, you have to be your own brand.” And to that I would add: you are your own brand whether you realize it or not.

Wonder if Michael Phelps is starting to figure it out now?