Every day, millions of humans set off on the morning commute to jobs that they hate. This is not an easy task, nor does it get easier as the years roll by.
Once you’ve reached this state of professional ennui, there is generally no return. To quit your job and do something you “love,” something that will intellectually stimulate you – thereby giving up the financial security that your shitty job provides you with – is a great risk.
Many people dream that they could be a professional athlete, for example. Adored by millions, rich and successful, the world at their feet.
But it may come as a surprise that many athletes, surprisingly, wish they could just be normal.
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I feel that this phenomena of the “reluctant athlete” is most common in North America, where size matters – be it in fast food portion sizes or sportsmen in general.
Take the NBA, for example. As Indiana Pacers legend-cum-ESPN analyst Jalen Rose says, “”If you’re a 7 footer, and can walk and chew gum at the same time, you in the NBA.”
Andrew Bynum is 7-foot tall and can chew gum while walking, therefore he is in the NBA. But reluctantly.
Bynum won two rings as a starter when the Lakers went back-to-back in 2009-10 – a pretty impressive feat for a guy who was 22-23 at the time. However, since then Bynum’s career has been plagued by injuries, and the general league-wide consensus that he has an attitude problem.
A chronic knee problem meant he missed a full season with Philadelphia. But despite concerns over his fitness, Cleveland put a lucrative two-year $25 million deal on the table. Then, according to this article, this happened:
“Only Bynum never made it to the early January guarantee date for his full $12.5 million salary in 2013-14, and self-destructed. He stopped trying on the floor, and became a disruptive presence in practices. Before Bynum was thrown out of his final practice and suspended, he was shooting the ball every time he touched it in a practice scrimmage, sources said – from whatever remote part of the court he had caught the ball.”
He was just chucking the ball at the net from whatever remote part of the court he caught it! While hilarious and childish as that is, that doesn’t sound like a guy who likes playing basketball. It sounds like a guy who doesn’t give a shit – and wants you to know that.
There was also a rumour going around that the real reason he didn’t get any game time at the Cavaliers was because he was, in fact, “banging the assistant coach’s fiancee.” Just saying.
Bynum, who is now at the Pistons, was presumably urged from a young age to pursue the sport, given his size and stature. To be fair, this sounds like reasonably astute career advice. And it obviously all came too easy for Bynum, who skipped college and went straight into the NBA as a 17-year-old.
Since then, Bynum has been exposed to a lifetime’s supply of riches, women and fame. But when the injuries kicked in, he failed to rehab effectively, instead pouring his efforts into sporting weird hairdos, smoking weed and hitting strip-clubs, because his love for the sport simply wasn’t there.
San Antonio’s ego-less Tim Duncan is a 7-foot giant who can also chew gum while walking, but the difference is that he lives and breathes basketball. He is a true student of the game, who will selflessly execute whatever play is deemed best for the team by Coach Popovich.
For Duncan, turning up to training each day is no chore – because he just loves the game.
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Andre Agassi is perhaps the most famous example of an athlete who reached the pinnacle in spite of the fact he hated his sport.
Agassi’s autobiography, Open, is a candid insight into a troubled mind. As a child, Agassi was pushed by his overbearing father into pursuing a sport that he describes as “lonely.”
“Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players – and yet boxers have their corner men and managers. Even a boxer’s opponent provides a kind of companionship, someone he can grapple with and grunt at. In tennis you stand face-to-face with the enemy, trade blows with him, but never touch him or talk to him, or anyone else.”
Agassi’s dislike for tennis is perhaps more existential than Serena Williams’, who said recently that while she does not love tennis, she could not live without it – and that she’d rather be “shopping” than making millions as a professional athlete.
Williams is an exceptional athletic specimen who sees tennis as a means to an end. She is a consummate professional – unlike Bynum – who is leveraging her physical advantage to make millions while she can. One imagines that the financial payoff – which allows her to live a lavish lifestyle – makes it easier to sleep at night.
Agassi’s existentialism is something that many of us can relate to in our own jobs. However, he was able to “suck it up” and reap rich rewards from the sport, before divulging his secret in the form of a best-selling book.
At least for the athlete, their job is not a life sentence; merely a 10-15 year commitment at best.
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Most athletes like to pay their respects to the “fans.” They acknowledge that without their support, they wouldn’t be where they are today.”
Fans are money. They’re the ones who sit in the stands, who buy the jerseys and the subscription TV season passes. Without fans, commercial sport is just “sport” – and professional athletes are just “blokes who play sport.”
Professional athletes, like actors, sometimes justify what they do as providing enjoyment and escapism to fans. But some athletes, those capable of thinking outside their bubble, often realise that there is more to life than kicking a ball around.
That’s kind of what happened with former NFL player Pat Tilman, who enrolled in the US army in the aftermath of September 11 to pursue a career of “greater impact.” He was killed in Afghanistan on active duty two years later, and is often held up as a Great American Hero.
Now, enrolling in a war is an extreme example, but it shows that some athletes do consider the world around them – and their part in it. For the more cerebral athlete, long hours spent in the company of brainless jock teammates – or, conversely, long hours spent alone, hitting a ball in the blazing hot sun under the watchful eye of a grizzled Russian coach – can really cause the mind to wander.
“What the fuck am I doing? Is there more to life than this?”
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As mere civilians, we find it preposterous that high-profile, successful, well-paid athletes could not enjoy what they do for a living. But if you were pushed into a sport against your will simply because your father desperately wanted you to, or on the basis of your physique, you could be excused for increasingly not giving a fuck.
In the end, everybody wants to blaze their own trail, to be their own man. When that sense of individuality is taken away from you, you act out. No matter how much money an organisation is prepared to throw at you.
By Dave Edwards