NBC: No comment on Phelps controversy

Network did mention news during Super Bowl coverage

NEW YORK -- When the pictures of Beijing Olympic record-holder Michael Phelps' hard partying came out over the weekend, NBC Sports was deep into another high-profile event: Sunday night's Super Bowl.

The company wasn't immediately talking about the controversy, which erupted after a British newspaper carried a photograph of the swimmer smoking from a marijuana bong at a party in the fall at the University of South Carolina. Phelps acknowledged Sunday that he had smoked marijuana ad apologized.

There was no immediate comment from NBC Sports, whose marketing acumen and Phelps' eight gold medal swims in primetime helped make the Beijing Olympics a smash ratings success in August. Phelps' acknowledgment came late in the morning Sunday, hours before the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals faced off in the Super Bowl. NBC carried the game.

But even though they weren't talking officially, NBC didn't shy away from covering the news. NBC mentioned the controversy at least three times Sunday, first within the first 15 minutes of "Today," again during the few minutes live at noon EST to kickoff the pregame show and then again when Bob Costas returned on the air in the early afternoon after the NFL Films program that led off the pregame.

The Phelps news threatened to put throw water on what should have been a crowning achievement for NBC Sports. After a smash ratings success in Beijing, NBC had put a lot of effort into the Super Bowl. The network's sales force is entertaining advertisers with an upfront-style presentation, and the network itself did a full-court press among its stars -- from Tina Fey and Jay Leno to former "SNL" star Will Ferrell -- to take part in the six-hour pregame. It also hooked an interview by "Today" co-host Matt Lauer with President Barack Obama.

What's unclear is how this will affect Phelps' multimillion-dollar endorsement career as well as his time in the pool. There's a rule that requires a two-year suspension for use of cannibis. And it remains to be seen whether Phelps' reputation can survive this among advertisers and Hollywood. NBC was counting on Phelps' pledge to continue swimming for another four years to help the network with ratings of swimming events between now and the Summer Olympics in 2012 in London.