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Superendorser Michael Phelps Caught Smoking Marijuana

Olympian Apologizes After Photo of Him With Bong Turns Up in Tabloid

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Perhaps Michael Phelps should have endorsed White Castle instead of Subway.

Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps Credit: AP
A photo of the record-setting-Olympian-turned-mega-endorser smoking marijuana through a bong turned up in the British tabloid News of the World today, under the screaming headline "What a Dope." The photo was reportedly taken at a party at the University of South Carolina last November.

In a statement, Mr. Phelps confirmed the authenticity of the photo, saying: "I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I'm 23 years old, and despite the successes I've had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again."

Subway could not be reached for comment.

This is Mr. Phelps' second public slip-up involving controlled substances. In 2004, at age 19, he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and sentenced to 18 months probation.

Large-scale endorsements
The potentially damaging news comes at a time when Mr. Phelps has been enjoying a run of large-scale endorsements following his record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics last summer. Since the close of the Olympics, he has inked deals with Kellogg, Subway, AT&T, Hilton and, most recently, Mazda.

But he has also proven an occasionally problematic endorser, getting caught on CNN, for instance, with a box of General Mills' Honey Nut Cheerios in his kitchen when he is paid to shill for Kellogg. There's also the matter of his oft-expressed love for McDonald's cheeseburgers in the context of his major endorsement deal with Subway, which has built its messaging around what eating like that does to a body.

Being linked to drug use is, of course, a potentially bigger blow to his marketing star, although history shows that marketers will often keep signing checks to even problematic athletes if they continue to perform at such a rarified level as Mr. Phelps has. One such athlete, Michael Jordan, never managed to scare marketers away during his career despite a string of news reports focused on gambling woes and alleged philandering. Kobe Bryant survived a rape accusation to remain a much sought-after spokesperson.

But if Mr. Phelps' performance slips, look out. Consider the case of Michael Vick, once a prized endorser for the likes of Coca-Cola, Nike, Kraft and AirTran. Even before he went to jail for running an illegal dog-fighting ring, Mr. Vick's endorsements were largely dwindling amid a combination of declining performance on the field and reports of spotty conduct off of it -- including several reports linking him to drugs.

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