Whatever works. And whatever doesn't
Something about pro sports raises questions about the value of a hard day's work.
If regular people golf when they go someplace nice on vacation, what the hell do professional golfers do? Spend a week in Flint filling up spreadsheets with regional sales figures from a magnetic-fastener business? Book a four-night/five-day stay in the pit at the lube 'n tune in Salina? Do they randomly re-side and paint the trim on a stranger's house?
Vocation? Vacation? What do you do when your work is play?
So today we set out some harebrained notes on millionaire athletes and the nature of work, on price and on value and on confusing the two, on my job and your job, on good jobs and bad jobs and snow jobs, on good works and bad faith, on Lou Piniella getting it right and Gatsby getting it wrong, on Darrelle Revis getting his cheddar and Melo getting the gate, and on the endless miracle of Brett Favre getting and eating his cake and still having it, too.
In the meantime, welcome to 21st-century America, where the less you do the more you're paid to do it.
I was put in mind of all this madness a couple of weeks ago when that lunatic JetBlue flight attendant grabbed two beers and pulled the emergency chute on his livelihood, sliding into American folklore as a working-class hero. It struck me as odd that he was being praised by the general public for his loathing of the general public, and that got me thinking about real life and the nature of work.
In America, we are our jobs. It's how we introduce ourselves to one another. It's our nobility and the foundation of what we think of as the American meritocracy. Work, hard work, is one pillar of the Bible -- and of the Quran and the NFL collective bargaining agreement.
Ask anyone at a party who he is, and he'll tell you instead what he does. We hate our jobs, we love our jobs and every American everywhere is blessed with an inalienable right to complain about his job. From Max Weber to Philip Levine to that fake quitter girl, we are all about the work and always have been.
A bare and lucky working handful of us might even have a calling instead of a job.
But in real life, unlike baseball, everybody goes on short rest.
So poor Albert Haynesworth of the Washington Redskins grabs the headlines for suffering from some combination of the following: (a) something called rhabdomyolysis, a degenerative muscular condition, or (b) Undertrained Millionaire Athlete Disorder, a degenerative condition of the character in which the backbone gradually disappears under the weight of $100 million, or (c) the even more pernicious Undertrained Publicist Syndrome, a degenerative condition in which no amount of spin is sufficient to reverse the damage to a reputation.
I'd hate to say that race has anything to do with the nature of the coverage, but it's interesting to note that while Haynesworth has been absolutely scalded for his laughable performance in camp this summer and for missing the Redskins' offseason workouts, Favre missed camp entirely and "trains" in the offseason by mowing his lawn, mastering the apps on his mobile phone and lobbing out routes to actors in Wrangler commercials. But it's all good because he gave a speech about it.
It's worth mentioning as well that nearly every joking reference to Haynesworth running gassers in the summer sun included an elbow to the ribs about that $100 million contract -- and thus the winking implication that he's a craven profiteer, a mercenary who plays football just because he's paid to do so.
Only rarely does a story about Favre -- who has outearned just about everyone in the NFL during the past two decades based on salary, incentives and endorsements -- try to tie the size of his contract to the rigor of his work ethic. Or even mention money. He's like a little kid out there! A simple huckleberry! All heart! Playing for purity and for love of the game*!
(*And tens of millions of dollars!)
I'm guilty of this myself, of course, and resolve to work harder at undoing the double standard.
Does our work dignify us? Or are we meant to dignify our work?
Don't bother asking a professional football player. Or a professional baseball player. Or a professional athlete of any kind in any sport. Or a coach, for that matter. Or a big college president or athletic director. And please don't bother asking those questions of a sports writer. Or a CEO. Or politicians or cops or clergymen or soda jerks or your mom or the tribal council on "Survivor."
In fact, don't bother asking an American. We've long since lost our minds on the meaning and importance of work, on matters of dignity and probity and patience, on the puzzle of empathy and sympathy and worth, and on the building of wealth or nations or character. And the cost of these misunderstandings is becoming incalculable.
Including knowing the difference between a man's price and a man's value.
The answer to every complication of modern American conscience is this:
Money does not equal respect.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at email@example.com.