Over the weekend, a photo emerged showing Olympic gold medalist and media darling Michael Phelps taking a haul from a bong. The picture could prove costly to the man with the most Olympic gold medals in history. Corporate sponsors have been lining up to associate themselves with Phelps since the summer Olympics. Many of those companies are likely to reconsider their association with Phelps in the wake of his 'bong photo'.
Phelps is still just a kid (23 years old), but if he wants to swim in the big kids' pool where the multi-million dollar endorsement deals await, such lapses in judgment are going to be unacceptable.
While it's nearly impossible to put a precise dollar figure on the financial damage his reputation has suffered, a conservative estimate would have to be in the millions.
The obligatory 'apology quote' prepared for Phelps by his agency, Octagon, was actually fairly decent: "I'm 23 years old, and despite the successes I have had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in the manner that people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again."
The quote had the right balance of sincerity and contrition. Unfortunately, no amount of eloquence or spin is going to put this toothpaste back in the tube. This is one picture that's worth at least a few millions words.