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Why is Michael Jordan the idol of millions of teenage basketball fans throughout the world? Why do the top players (and some mediocre players, nowadays) get paid millions of dollars to put a puck in a goal or to throw a baseball 66 feet and 6 inches? Does Ken Griffey Jr. better my quality of life by hitting home runs?

While I enjoy sports as much as the next rabid, face-paint wearing, expletive uttering, fanatical, season ticket-holding drunkard (well, okay, not really), I have never quite understood why professional sports have grown to the lucrative enterprises we know them as today.

I worked as an intern a few summers ago at Brandeis University, where cutting-edge research in nearly every scientific field is conducted in several brand-new facilities. You could sense just by walking through the hallways and into the laboratories that something important was being discovered or researched in each room.

My own lab was conducting research on human memory--how items are heard, stored, remembered, recalled, associated, compared…in short, how we think. Other labs were researching subatomic particles, the effects of different gravitational fields on the body, sleep depravation, the psychology of marriage (and divorce), networking capabilities for Java applets…and those were only the labs on my floor. Each year, almost all of Brandeis' labs, as is the case for nearly every college institution of the same caliber, publish at least one article in a scientific journal or magazine. These articles represent a new advance--something that has never been proven or realized before. Never. These advances, even the minor ones that hold little value for anyone outside of the specific field with which the paper deals, represent the constant betterment of our society. Most inventions in the last century have been made on the grounds of a college or university.

I asked one of the administrators how many professors were currently conducting scientific research and the approximate salary for such a position. I found, startlingly, that the entire payroll of the research staff could be paid with the salaries of only two or three mediocre professional athletes. If the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB were dissolved and the salaries for all the players instead funneled to the nation's struggling research system, I would probably be dictating to my computer right now instead of typing (yes, there are speech recognition programs available, but these are horribly laden with problems and consistently make rudimentary errors. Even best estimates indicate at least another ten years before a "perfect" program is released to the public). I might have driven an electric car today instead of adding more yummy chemicals to the atmosphere. Hell, someone might have actually worked out an easy-to-understand 1040 form by now.

Do we recognize the right people in today's society as heroes? Shouldn't we pay the sanitation workers millions of dollars--after all, they play a much more integral part in just about everyone's life than a star athlete. So do teachers, waiters and waitresses, factory workers, plumbers, journalists, cable repairmen, and even those women who read off the night's winning Lotto numbers from those little white bouncy balls. What kind of sick perverted culture pays someone who's really super at putting a ball in a hoop thousands of times more than the people who actually work to improve and maintain our society? Ours, apparently.
Muhammad Ali was once asked why he had demanded the then-unheard of sum of $1,000,000 to fight in Las Vegas.

His answer: "Because that's what they were willing to pay me."

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