Can you really call it work if you're wearing shorts in December?
That question and other similar self-queries popped up in my head the last week as I took a trip to Southern California with the Utah State football team. With an army of Poinsettia Bowl redcoats attending to every need, it didn't feel much like work.
With the Christmas holidays, I had tried to report on the Aggies' matchup with Northern Illinois before the trip. That left room for some of these hard-hitting questions:
"What is it like to practice outside in 75-degree weather?"
"What do you think of the dolphin as a receiver?"
"What's the most interesting fact about giant tortoises you learned today?"
Trips to the USS Midway, SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo dominated the afternoons, as players were able to split off freely, for the most part, into their own groups. While the game was the focus of the trip, players acknowledged they were taking plenty of time for themselves.
I wrote stories that week, of course, but it would be dishonest to say that going on the fun sojourns to tourist spots felt much like reporting. I enjoyed the free time as much as Utah State did.
I wondered: What is the importance of covering these events? The gifts, the trips, the whole vacation feel of the week seemed almost like luxury overkill if I tried to process it all at once.
It was an exchange with senior guard Jamie Markosian that shifted my attitude a bit.
He told me he hadn't really spent the holidays away from home before, but he was glad he could be with his teammates one last week. He said he didn't regret one moment he spent with them.
This put a few things into sharp relief. For one, the team and really every sports team spends a lot of time together during the season, and so much of it is work: school, weights, film study, practice. Even riding the bus for hours gets to be a grind.
Then, there was another thing: For a quarter of the team, this was it. After the bowl game, many of them wouldn't be back in Logan. They would just go home. The seniors would say their goodbyes to a lot of their best friends at Qualcomm Stadium, and their college careers would simply be over.
A lot of people have strong opinions about the pampering of college athletes, and bowl weeks often only make those folks feel more rooted in their stance. There's no doubt being on a sports team has its hookups gear, gifts, academic priority, tutors and BMOC (or BWOC) status.
But in another light, playing a college sport is very much like a job. Students have perks, but they also have virtually a full-time career going to keep their scholarships. They work, they study, they push themselves in ways that many of us may never quite fully appreciate, even if it unfolds in front of our eyes.
I'm not saying athletes are more deserving of rewards than typical students who I also believe to be hard-working and pushed to extremes but I do understand why they are rewarded. After a year of work, they get one last week to celebrate a winning season, and try to enjoy each other's company. Those memories formed at the zoo or on the beach are memorable not just for where the players were, but for who they were with.
One last time. Just a little bit of fun before going back into the world, or sometimes before splitting off from football completely. I get it.
It won't inspire the best journalism in the world, but it doesn't make it any less important.