HR Management & Compliance

Pro Athletes Are Back on the Job, but Is It Really Work?

As the nation continues to confront a deadly pandemic, a flagging economy, and difficult discussions about social justice, the world of professional sports is stepping in to offer a brief respite from our woes.

Source: aristreer / iStock / Getty Images

Major League Baseball (MLB) kicked off the 2020 season last week, the National Basketball Association (NBA) returns tonight, pro hockey will begin on August 1, and the National Football League is making final preparations for teams to go to training camps.

Despite some misgivings about safety amidst the coronavirus, most athletes seem happy about returning. They often talk, however, about “getting back to work” and just wanting to “do their jobs,” which makes us wonder if they have a good handle on what life is really like in the working world.

So, following is an examination of a few ways in which a professional athlete’s job might seem more desirable than the ordinary 9-to-5 working world, as well as a couple of examples of where the rest of us actually have it better than they do.

The Good

Here are a few reasons why we look at professional sports and say “nice work if you can get it”:

Money for games. Let’s start with the obvious: Male professional athletes in the “major sports” earn enormous sums of money just playing a game. Not all of them earn the amazing salaries we read about in the news reports, but many do, and all of them have the potential.

And they do so while playing games. I don’t mean to denigrate the athletes’ dedication to their craft or the skill, effort, and drive it takes to excel at the highest levels of sport. Nevertheless, if offered the opportunity to accumulate a lifetime’s earnings in just one year of hitting/throwing/shooting a ball, a great many of us likely would ask, “Where do I sign up?”

Which brings to mind the (apocryphal?) story of the legendary Babe Ruth in his salary negotiations with the New York Yankees during the Great Depression. When told he was demanding a higher salary than what even the U.S. president made, Ruth supposedly responded, “Well, I had a better year than he did.”

Work schedule. A professional athlete’s workday may last about 3 or 4 hours, for anywhere between 6 to 9 months a year depending on whether the team makes the playoffs. Yes, they may work out or do some running at other times (just like a lot of us do when we aren’t working), but time spent plying their actual trade is about half of a standard workday, or even less.

In fact, certain athletes—e.g., starting pitchers in MLB—would view even that limited schedule as downright onerous. They are usually part of a five-person rotation, meaning they work only every fifth day. With an ordinary (non-COVID-19) 162-game schedule, starting pitchers will work only 32-33 times in the regular season. For the rest of us, that’s the equivalent of working about 52 days, and only a few hours each time.

That may explain why, when pitchers are removed from the rotation and sent to the bullpen, they talk so much about wanting to get back into the starting role.

Work location. For those who don’t follow the NBA, they are resuming their season by having the teams live, practice, and play in Disneyworld. Let that sink in. In addition to making all that money just playing games a few hours a night, the league dominated by players in their late teens-early 20s gets to live in the Florida vacation hot spot for the next 3 months.

Jiminy Cricket was right: Dreams really can come true.

The Bad

On the other hand, here are some reasons why we might be just as happy not to be working in the public eye as the athletes do:

Working conditions. This is definitely an area where we have it better than the athletes. Not many of us have to endure plying our trade every day while our customers get to swear at us, call us bums (or worse), and scream all sorts of unflattering remarks about our performance, appearance, and other aspects of our personal lives. Could this be why most athletes don’t seem to mind resuming their seasons this year without fans in the stands?

Public performance assessments. Most of us don’t have our job performance subject to review and critique every day in the newspapers, Internet, and everywhere else. We also probably don’t have Facebook pages and websites devoted solely to the question of whether we are overrated.

(Editor’s note: We feel obligated to mention you should never consider starting up those sorts of Facebook pages and Internet sites about your employees. Ever.)

The Different

Here is one circumstance when an athlete’s work is just very different from ours:

National Anthem. The National Anthem generally isn’t played at the beginning of our workday. Thus, we’re not faced with the “kneel for social justice” v. “stand to respect our flag” debate.

In our world, if we see coworkers kneeling in their offices, it’s likely they either dropped their cell phones or are suffering some sort of medical episode. In either event, it’s considered good coworker etiquette to step in and help.

Bottom Line

Regardless of how we feel about a professional athlete’s job, those of us who enjoy sports are almost certainly looking forward to the resumption of the games.

Dennis J. Merley is an attorney with Felhaber Larson in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can reach him at