After the 2008 Summer Olympics, images of swimmer Michael Phelps and his eight Olympic gold medals were everywhere - magazine covers and multi-million dollar sponsorship deals. Companies that made anything from cereal to watches rushed to create ads to show off their "golden boy."

Fast forward five months. A British newspaper published a picture of Phelps smoking marijuana at a party in South Carolina. People began to ask:

  • Would the Sheriff of Richland County, S.C. prosecute Phelps?
  • Would USA Swimming punish Phelps?
  • Would his sponsors continue to support him?

When elite-level, high profile athletes are caught using illegal drugs, they're scrutinized not only by law enforcement but also their sport's governing body and corporate sponsors.

Would the Police Prosecute Phelps?

Under South Carolina law, it's illegal to possess the ounce of marijuana in the pipe Phelps smoked. It is one of the least serious of the drug crimes, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and/or up to a $200 fine.

The picture was there for all to see. Isn't that a slam-dunk case for the police? Not necessarily. Prosecutors exercise prosecutorial discretion, which is the power to decide whether or not to press charges against a suspect. It's a powerful part of the criminal justice process.

Once a case comes to the attention of law enforcement, the prosecutor asks:

  • How strong is the evidence against the suspect?
  • How serious is the crime?
  • Should we use our resources for more serious cases?

Applying these questions to the Phelps case, the Richland County Sheriff decided not to prosecute Phelps. According to the sheriff's statement, there was "not enough evidence to prosecute anyone that was present at the . . . party."

Certainly, Phelps wasn't going to help the case. In all of Phelps's television appearances after the picture was published, he only admitted he "engaged in behavior that was regrettable" and "demonstrated bad judgment", but didn't admit to anything illegal.

Without an admission from the suspect, that means the police would have had to track down the person who took the picture or someone from the party to identify Phelps as the smoker. For such a minor violation, this would have used up too many police resources. The sheriff instead wanted to use those resources to investigate the "use and distribution of illegal drugs in Richland County." In other words, he had bigger fish to fry.

USA Swimming Decides to Punish Phelps

USA Swimming, on the other hand, didn't care that Phelps wasn't prosecuted. Their organization isn't a governmental agency, so they didn't need to make a legal case against him. The organization was free to suspend Phelps from competition for three months and also cut off his financial support for the same period.

The organization said, "This is not a situation where any anti-doping rule was violated." Instead, they wanted "to send a strong message . . . because he disappointed so many people, particularly the hundreds of thousands of USA Swimming member kids who look up to him as a role model and a hero".

Phelps Loses a Large Sponsor

Phelps kept most of his sponsors, but cereal maker Kellogg decided to end its relationship with him after his contract with them expired in February. The company said that Phelps's behavior at the party was "not consistent with the image of Kellogg."

When Phelps pleaded guilty to DUI in 2004, he didn't lose any sponsors. He wasn't as high-profile an athlete back then, but still had just won several gold medals in the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. The use of illegal drugs, however, seemed to leave a bigger negative impact on the sponsoring company and the image it wanted to portray to the public.

While to the public it may seem that celebrities and athletes sometimes get treated differently by prosecutors for crimes they commit, there are still many other penalties that attach to their conduct, such as the loss of sponsorships, and suspension by the league they are a member of.

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