Athletes work hard for their money

3/8/2011 - MLB NBA NFL Paul Pierce LeBron James + more

Consider it a case of accidental inspiration. I was watching the end of one of the Heat's recent losses (hard to keep up; I think it was San Antonio) and an episode of "The Association" came on afterward. In the few minutes I watched, there was a segment showing Paul Pierce at practice, playing defense like it was personal. At one point, he knocked the ball loose in a one-on-one drill and flung his body onto the floor to gain possession.

In a strange way, this struck me as a profound bit of footage. Here was a 33-year-old man, a probable Hall of Famer, diving for a loose ball during a midseason practice that most of us would consider meaningless. (He was really excited about it, too, which made it even more poignant.) I know there was a camera rolling, but it didn't give off a staged vibe.

It was an example of what we don't see often enough, or don't acknowledge often enough -- just how talented/committed/intense/competitive professional athletes have to be to reach the top.

At the risk of sounding like a Successories poster, it's the stuff that happens when nobody's looking that defines how well these guys perform when everybody's looking. And by extension it struck me that moments like Pierce diving for a ball are the kinds of things we rarely acknowledge because we choose instead to focus on the millions the players make and the women they get and the lives they lead rather than the grinding hard work it takes to get there, stay there and excel. Many of us look at these guys and begrudge them the money simply because we see them playing games in front of adoring fans, which leads otherwise sane people to say they'd do the same "work" for one-hundredth of the pay.

(Of course, that mentality would change immediately if we could actually do those things, but that's another nagging fact we don't talk about.)

This isn't meant to suggest pro athletes are underappreciated or undervalued. Far from it. And in some cases -- the Heat, for instance -- athletes overplay their hand and believe that simply showing up is all that matters. The congregation of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami is shaping up as a wild miscalculation that failed to take into account the importance of cohesion and intensity and the kind of sheer egoless desire that compels a guy to dive on the floor when it doesn't appear to matter. I'm simplifying here, but the point is LeBron gave off the impression that the merger was the thing, that by merely bringing together three of the greatest talents in the game, a handful of championships was the rightful and just result.

But watching Pierce the other day and spending three days at spring training a couple of weeks ago, watching guys go through the monotony of fielding endless ground balls early in the morning made me think we don't always appreciate the process.

(And yes, I know there are a lot of people who do far more important work far earlier in the morning for far less money and no adulation. I get it.)

In a meandering way -- meandering: theme for the day -- this led me to the situation with the NFL labor negotiations, and the confusing result of a Seton Hall University Sports Poll that indicates most fans back the players and yet buy into the owners' claim that players are overpaid.

It's hard to make too much of a poll of less than 800 people with results that state fans side with the players by the oddly incomplete margin of 35 percent to 22 percent, but it does reflect well on the disconnect. The owners are at fault if there's a lockout, but the owners are right to claim the players are overpaid? Since the crux of the dispute is the manner in which the billions should be disbursed, that seems to reflect confusion surrounding the issues, at the very least.

Management, because it is savvy enough to employ people who know how to spin such things, is fully aware of this phenomenon and will do whatever it takes to exploit the public's confusion. Take, for instance, the attempt to lengthen the season at precisely the wrong time for precisely the wrong reasons, at the same price or even less.

A lot of people scoff at the idea that NFL players are putting their future on the line every time they take the field. There are two consistent responses: 1) "Nobody's forcing them to play," and; 2) "I'd gladly take the risk for the money those guys are paid."

It's clear NFL owners are more than willing to play off the public's perception of athletes as spoiled and pampered. They believe, much as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker does, that people will coalesce their support behind management and against labor. If they -- meaning Walker and commissioner Roger Goodell -- can just put forth the case that NFL players/state workers are overpaid and underworked, they can use salaries as a Trojan horse to further a more insidious agenda.

Remember, it's entertainment to us, and business to them. Just because the reward is great doesn't lessen the risk. It pays well, but there's quite a bit of money coming into the teams from the television contract and concession sales and parking and merchandise and ticket sales. Every time someone makes the decision to buy a Cheesehead, a couple of nickels roll down the chute at every single team HQ.

The players, being the reason people pay for such things, should get paid well.

Which brings us back to Paul Pierce diving on the floor for the sheer competitiveness of it. Sometimes we need something and someone to remind us of what we already know.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.