This phenomenon brings up a fundamental question, one that lies at the very heart of the American sports obsession: Why do we revere professional athletes? Why not, perhaps, orthodontists? Or tax accountants?
The potential answers to this question are as numerous as the number of dimples on a golf ball multiplied by the number of stitches on a baseball. In other words, there are a lot of them. Some might say our athletic awe is an evolutionary remnant from a time when only the strongest survived. Others may say that we envy the "all play, no work" lifestyles professional athletes seem to lead.
I'm not here to debunk those theories. Rather, I would like to call to your attention another reason why we revere professional athletes. Simply put, professional athletes are extraordinary people.
Now, don't jump to the conclusion that I mean athletes are morally superior. Athletes such as Latrell Spreewell, O.J. Simpson and Mike Tyson (as well as countless others) have ensured that no sane person could possibly generalize high-profile athletes as a morally outstanding group. What makes our greatest athletes so extraordinary are the things that they actually do.
Imagine, for a moment, what it is like to be über-talented Vikings receiver Randy Moss. Ignore the $75-million contract, the ever-willing women, the tricked-out Hummer, the mansion in the suburbs and the "I play when I wanna to play" attitude. Instead, focus on what it is like to be Randy Moss. Imagine effortlessly gliding along the sideline, making the best defensive backs in the world look like they are standing still. Imagine leaping three feet in the air, right over two other people, to snatch a small projectile out of the sky. Imagine being so immensely talented that your own peers can only shake their heads in disbelief. What does that feel like?
We wonder this because the overwhelming majority of the population will never know that feeling. Sure, you probably played sports as a kid. If you were dedicated and a little talented, you probably played in high school. And if you were one of the better players in high school, you might have gone on to play Division III, II or, for a select few, Division I athletics.
But professional athletics are a different beast. They are the best of the best: No humans exist that are better at what they do. While it seems within the realm of possibility (if highly unlikely) that I could become a successful trial lawyer or world-renowned actor if I only put my mind to it, there is no amount of work, no amount of studying nor any sum of money that will allow me to hit, catch or throw a 95 mph fastball. Either you have the innate ability (properly cultivated, of course) or you don't. It's as simple as that.
This is why we enjoy sports so much. We don't watch because we like excessive end zone antics; we don't tune in to see how a certain shooting guard plays after a full day in a Colorado court. We love professional sports because these people do things that we only do in our dreams, and they make it seem so easy.
After all, when was the last time you marveled at the financial prowess of a tax accountant?