Phelps DUI Charge: Sink or Swim?

by on October 1, 2014

Michael Phelps was arrested early Tuesday in Baltimore, charged for the second time in 10 years with drunken driving. The charge comes five months after the record-setting Olympian’s return to competition.

 Police in Baltimore, Maryland, said he was stopped for speeding after being caught going 84mph (135km/h) in a 45mph zone early on Tuesday morning.

Mr Phelps was co-operative but failed a series of standard field sobriety tests, traffic police said in a statement. He was charged and released.

The most decorated Olympian ever, with 22 medals, later apologised on Twitter.

“I understand the severity of my actions and take full responsibility,” Mr Phelps wrote.

“I know these words may not mean much right now but I am deeply sorry to everyone I have let down.”

Mr Phelps, 28, retired after winning his 22nd Olympic medal at the London Games in 2012 but came out of retirement earlier this year.

Will another company — or more — bolt from Phelps’ sponsorship pack?

“The brand, Michael Phelps, took another hit with this latest news,” said Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “Companies want to sponsor people that will reflect positively on their brands.”

But as a business commodity, Phelps has some major upsides that could soften the blow of alleged DUI No. 2, Calkins said. First, Phelps has not been in the news recently — and likely will keep a low profile, like other Olympians, until the run-up to Rio, Calkins said.

In that scenario, his Tuesday incident will have negative consequences with sponsors only if the public, indeed, remembers it. That, in a sense, is now up to late-night and cable comedians known for commenting on events of the day and lambasting celebrities. Meanwhile, new companies considering a fresh partnership with Phelps now will likely apply more scrutiny to that decision.

“Sponsors will ask some tough questions,” Calkins said. “Poor behavior in the months leading up the Olympic Games would be a significant problem.”

Before the 2012 London Olympics, Forbes reported that Phelps’ slew of sponsorships earned him $5 million to $7 million annually, and that his agents were working to secure the swimmer long-term corporate deals to carry him for life.

In an odd twist of sporting scandal, Phelps’ standing as a sponsor may be shielded by so much other recent bad news: NFL players charged with domestic violence, and the case of NASCAR star Tony Stewart who was cleared by a New York grand jury after his car struck and killed a fellow racer standing on the track.

“Phelps won’t lose sponsors due to this,” said Darren Marshall, executive vice president of consulting and research at rEvolution, a global sports marketing firm based in Chicago. “He’s had two strikes now against 18 golds, and if you asked most Americans what the last issue was, they wouldn’t be able to recall it.

“It will be the same with this one by the time we get to the Rio Olympics,” Marshall said. “Oddly, the NFL and Tony Stewart issues may help Phelps a little here since his transgression isn’t on the scale of child or spousal abuse, or someone losing their life.”

Mr Phelps, who is from Baltimore County, was previously charged for driving under the influence in Maryland in 2004. He pleaded guilty to driving while impaired in exchange for 18 months’ probation.

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