Phelps' life denies colleges' drinking argument

August 24, 2008|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,

Somewhere in Maryland, there's a state employee who owns a piece of the gold Michael Phelps will bring home from Beijing. This fellow was never part of MP's training team, and neither mentor nor boyhood friend. In fact, he's someone Phelps probably doesn't like to think about - the state trooper on duty when the great athlete did something foolish and dangerous. The trooper stopped Phelps from driving out of Salisbury under the influence of alcohol, saving not only the Olympian's life but possibly someone else's. The man-dolphin magnificence we just saw in the Summer Games might never have occurred had that trooper not been there for Phelps one night in November 2004.

MP - 19 at the time, two years shy of the legal drinking age - had won eight medals at Athens a couple of months earlier. He went to a party near Salisbury University. About 11:30 p.m., with two friends as passengers, he drove away in a Land Rover, rolling through a stop sign, making a right and then a sudden left. The trooper saw this and ordered the vehicle to stop. When he approached the Rover, he detected "an extremely strong odor" of alcohol and noticed that Phelps' eyes were bloodshot and glassy. At first, Phelps denied drinking, but after sobriety tests, he apologized for the denial and told the trooper: "I was just scared because I have a lot to lose."

Everyone, starting with the news media, assumed that, by "a lot to lose," Phelps meant all the gold and celebrity his future promised, including endorsements and business opportunities. Of course, the most precious thing he stood to lose was his life, or the life of a friend, or some stranger in another car.

Phelps handled the episode smartly, expressing sincere regret right from the start. "Getting into a car with anything to drink is wrong, dangerous and unacceptable," Phelps told The Sun at the time. "I'm 19, but no matter how old you are, you should take responsibility for your actions, which I will do."

He pleaded guilty, and a judge sentenced him to 18 months' probation.

I only bring it up again because last week more than 100 college presidents said we should consider dropping the drinking age from 21 to 18. They can't stop students from binge-drinking, the presidents say, so lower the drinking age and students might be more responsible. The presidents and the group that recruited their support say the present drinking age has created a culture of alcohol abuse on campus.

That, of course, is ridiculous, the implication being that, back when they were legal at 18, collegians didn't binge as much as they do now. When I was in college, there were two kinds of drinkers: those who didn't and those who overdid. Two of my high school classmates died booze-related deaths within a year of graduation. Raising the drinking age has kept a lot of kids from drinking at all and, if you read the studies, it helped reduce by as much as half the number of alcohol-related deaths among teens on the roads.

The college presidents seem to be saying, that if you make booze less forbidden and intriguing, then fewer teens will abuse it.

This is a wishful assertion, and nothing more.

It's similar to the argument used in support of decriminalization of heroin and cocaine. Decriminalization would probably reduce violent crime related to illicit drug commerce. And, if you are willing to accept an increase in human impairment, social dysfunction and premature death, it's really a fine idea. On the other hand, if you believe wider use of mind-altering substances is a sure way to further reduce the nation's brainpower and its competitiveness in the global economy, then you must support the present laws while demanding more public funds for early intervention and drug treatment.

That's the approach these college presidents should be taking - respect of the present laws and early intervention (junior high and high school) to keep kids from poisoning their still-developing brains. Early intervention means parents - first time I've used the way overdue "p" word in this column - and it means setting a good example about booze and warning of its dangers.

If we want to get a fresh and effective message across to kids, Michael Phelps has the street cred to carry it. Kids will listen to MP, not to college presidents. One night four years ago, he almost lost everything. Now, he's won everything. He's a golden reminder of how precious life is, and how great it can be, and how you don't need booze to take you there.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesday and Sunday.

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