How To Feel Bad For Millionaires: Why Empathizing With Athletes Is Just Fine

Some might try to tell you that feeling bad for a wealthy athlete who loses out on a championship or is sidelined with an injury makes you a gullible idiot. It just isn't true.

I could just as easily write this at any time. This time it seems relevant to the struggles of Portland Trail Blazers teammates Greg Oden and Brandon Roy, who have seen their careers completely derailed by their ailing legs.

Our appreciation of athletes is a strange operation. We like them, and so it follows that if they sustain a career-threatening injury or fall short of a career goal (i.e. a championship), we should empathize with them. We appreciate the significance of the circumstance, but ultimately we tend to reduce such circumstances to a story to be digested -- like a "good read" -- or view them squarely within the context of our rooting interests.

I can't in good conscience state that you're morally compelled to feel anything more than that. At the same time, I do stand in defense of empathy -- real, actual, feeling bad -- for the millionaire athlete. The guy who, on average, makes in a single year what the average American would make after 35 to 150 years (and in some cases, over a half-millennium) of labor, and does so for performing a variant of what the rest of us regard as recreational activity.

If LeBron misses out on his championship or Stephen Strasburg is sidelined for a year, and you feel legitimately, personally bad for them, you aren't a sucker, and you shouldn't let anyone tell you otherwise. People have tried to tell me otherwise, and these are the things they say:

They get to play a game for a living.

This isn't ping-pong at the quad. Professional athletes, by and large, have the discipline of a monk. They mortgaged away a large portion of their childhoods to even place themselves into a pool of candidates who stand a less remote chance of playing for a living.

Yes, there are probably some who are loafing it — who don't practice as hard because they don't want to or have to. I would suggest that this accounts for less than 5 percent of professional athletes. The rest of them are scary workaholic monsters. I don't know you, so I don't know whether they work harder than you, but they work really hard and pretty much never complain about it.

They love the game, of course, but I feel like to reduce it to "fun" would be missing the mark. For some it's a quest, and for some it's the reason they exist. To call that "fun" is to call the Horsehead Nebula "pretty neat."

They can deal with it. They have millions of dollars.

Having boatloads of money is a life experience that I don't think you're qualified to issue judgment on unless you've been there. "Having a lot of money" is the only real-life superpower, but it is a superpower. Such a person can buy a Benz in triplicate because you saw it in an ad and not feel it in your bank account. That is some Magneto shit.

People with tons of money are, of course, not one ounce intrinsically "better" than you, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. They have done things most have not, and they have experienced dilemmas most have not. In that sense, they will have the opportunity to gain specific varieties of life experience and wisdom that most will not.

They, then, probably know better than you whether or not seeing one's life ambitions derailed or ended is made all better by a lot of money.

People are dying every day and you're sad because this guy tore his ACL?

Spoken as someone who hasn't yet caught wise to the fact that the strings of the human psyche are guided by biases upon biases upon biases, some of which are completely irrational, this criticism, strangely, is both the one that holds the most weight and the one that especially annoys me.

It's hopelessly naive because it depends on the pretense that human beings are capable of rationally appropriating their feelings and emotions. The people who throw this at you are probably the same people who told you not to be sad about [celebrity's] passing because "people die every day." Well no shit, turkey, but we're not writing Sorrow Power Rankings 2K12, we're just identifying a thing as a bummer and observing it accordingly.

So boiled down, my suggestion is this: if you don't feel empathy toward an athlete, you're not cold-hearted for it, and if you do, you're not a stupid, gullible mark for it. Fair enough?

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