Posted: Wednesday February 23, 2011 9:20AM ; Updated: Wednesday February 23, 2011 9:20AM
Steve Rushin
Steve Rushin>RUSHIN LIT

There's real labor involved in sports

Story Highlights

Sports is labor, most of it invisible; even visible labor mostly invisible to public

Athletes, sportswriters often say: "I haven't worked a day in my life." Not true

Laborers in the NBA are less union man Cesar Chavez than Julio Cesar Chavez

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For sports superstars like the Cardinals' Albert Pujols, even when they're idle they're often hard at work.

One February morning years ago I drove a rental car across Florida -- Alligator Alley shimmering in the heat haze -- and composed questions in my head for the great Willie Stargell.

At the sprawling spring complex of the Atlanta Braves, I parked the car and trudged on foot to Remote Practice Field Q, a journey of a mile or more, at the end of which I found Stargell, the Hall of Fame slugger turned hitting instructor, leaning against a batting cage, hat tugged low, quite possibly asleep on his feet. I didn't know whether to say hello or to cow-tip him.

In the end, I cleared my throat so as not to startle him and said: "Excuse me, Mr. Stargell, do you have a minute?" The man they called Pops snorted to life, causing his cap to go cockeyed. "Can't talk," he said. "Gotta work." To emphasize the point, he clapped his hands together and said: "Gotta work, work, work, work, WORK."

As I turned around to make the epic journey back to the parking lot -- the view from a helicopter would have shown two lone figures, Pops and me, surrounded by an acre of hot scrubland -- I stole one last look over my shoulder. Pops was now leaning on a Louisville Slugger, literally watching grass grow, in advance of that morning's bunting drills.

What struck me then, as they do now, were the twin epiphanies that 1) Stargell really was working, by the standards of spring training and 2) so was I.

"A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought," wrote Victor Hugo. "There is visible labor and there is invisible labor." Pops and I, like many in sports, were engaged in invisible labor, a concept I've tried to explain over the years to various bosses, parents, siblings and offspring, none of whom think sports is work.

When they hear about the NFL and NBA "labor" disputes, they wonder -- as you might -- where exactly the labor comes in. Sympathy, strangely, almost always lies with management in these crises. Owners own. That much is clear. But players play. They don't work. Can you really have a work stoppage if you've never had a work startage?

The truth is, sports is labor, most of it invisible. (Even the visible labor -- weightlifting, workouts, wearisome travel -- is mostly invisible to the public.) When a guy is sitting on a stool, staring into space in a state of semi-dress, he is almost always working. This is the kind of work done by a starting pitcher on game day, when nobody goes near him, or by a writer jackknifed over his keyboard, nibbling his thumbnail to a nubbin.

Athletes and sportswriters often say: "I haven't worked a day in my life." It isn't true and they don't believe it. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar memorably said: "Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes." It's work. But it isn't work as most of us know it, which is why athletes and coaches also, in the same breath, protesteth too much about their workload.

Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star Tribune notes that Twins manager Ron Gardenhire threw out spring's ceremonial first "That Guy Has Worked His Tail Off" encomium. There will be thousands more. Search the phrase and its gluteal equivalents -- "worked his tail off", "worked his butt off", "worked his ass off" -- and almost every one of them will have issued from the mouth of a coach or athlete unburdened of his buttocks and struggling to keep his pants up. The phrase scarcely exists outside of sports.

I know why coaches talk about all this hard work -- as reward, as motivation, to make the ludicrous salaries seem less offensive -- but it isn't necessary. The problem is the word labor. Labor calls to mind Samuel Gompers and the United Auto Workers and striking field hands. The laborers in the NBA are less Cesar Chavez (who unionized farm workers) than Julio Cesar Chavez (who rose from poverty to make a fortune in the boxing ring).

Labor is the wrong word, but playing sports is work, and whether that work is at FedEx or the FedEx Forum is immaterial.

I once made the mistake of interrupting Albert Pujols while he was invisibly laboring before a game. He was seated at his locker in the visitor's clubhouse in Arlington, Texas, staring distantly, vacantly -- the glazed gaze of a man whose plane has been delayed for three hours. When I asked for an interview, he said he had work to do, at which time he rose, walked over to a TV and watched baseball for 20 minutes, sitting four feet from the screen, as my kids do.

The game's best player was studying tape of that night's pitcher. What looked like your respite from work -- watching baseball on a couch -- was Pujols punching a clock. His work is your play. Your play is his work. It's a strange and sometimes damaging inversion that causes some athletes to lose touch with reality. All play and no work makes Jack a dull boy. Which is why the best treat it like the job that it is.

It's a lesson I learned first on that equatorial morning in Florida, driving across the state back to my hotel, the FM drowning out the AC, my mind composing a memo to my editors about how I spent my workday getting rebuffed by Willie Stargell.

Nice work if you can get it, for Pops and for me. But don't let the fact that it beats working for a living obscure the fact that it's still working for a living.

Steve Rushin is the author of The Pint Man, a novel. Purchase it here. Also check out
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