Usain Bolt is one of few Olympians whose endorsements allow him to train full-time.
Usain Bolt is one of few Olympians whose endorsements allow him to train full-time. LUKAS COCH

OPINION: How hard is it to kick a ball?

AS SPORT continues on its road of commodification and professional athletes are showered with money for their physical talents, they regularly draw the ire of the masses. It is hard for the not-so physically talented among us to fathom the wealth these athletes are afforded.

But in saving that argument for another day, it does lead to a topic I have long argued over. Is being a professional athlete as difficult as a regular nine to five job?

But is it actually a job?

Regardless of your opinion of sport as a legitimate profession, it is. Consider an athlete's job a cross between manual labour and movie stardom; physical feats are required to perform the given task, and said task is viewed by millions of people across the world as a source of entertainment. And just as these two professions require years of mastery, so to does a professional sport.

It is important to differentiate between a professional and amateur athlete. The majority of Olympians are amateurs, and by definition are not paid an income for their performance. Aside from a handful of high profile athletes with multi-million dollar endorsement deals, most amateurs also work regular jobs on top of their significant training schedule.

Getting a job

Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule - the principle that dictates 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is needed to become world-class - holds true in sport, but natural selection also plays a part. Because it is hard to imagine a 5 foot 10 (on a good day) guy like myself making it in the NBA, regardless of how good my jump shot may be.

For the genetically predisposed, there is still the question of being good enough. As in any other profession, athletes are hired based on their ability to perform to the task. In this case, the 1055 athletes registered to 18 AFL clubs represent 0.0007% - or one in every 1330 - of the 1.4 million who pulled on the boots in 2016. Of these 1055, only 396 take the field each week.

We can liken this to the 720 grade 12 graduates in Queensland who met the OP1 cut-off to study medicine at university in 2016.

Career length and earnings

An average AFL career spans just six years. With the average salary eclipsing $300,000 in 2016, that means after jumping through all the hoops to make it in their chosen sport, only 50% of athletes can expect to earn more than $1.8million in their careers.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2012-13 the average age of retirement was 53.8 years, but that number is expected to rise into the 60s in the near future. If we take a conservative approach and say the average professional begins their career at 25 and works until they are 54, then the $82,000 average annual salary equates to $2.37 million.

Doing the job

There is no denying playing in front of tens of thousands of fans is probably more appealing than sitting at a desk for 40+ hours a week. AFL players are also afforded eight weeks of annual leave, double the standard entitlement of four weeks for most professions. It is impossible to quantify and compare the difficulty of jobs, so it is best to compare a regular working week.

Until 2012, being an AFL footballer meant working seven days a week in most cases. The AFL Players Association successfully advocated for one full day off each week, bringing that down to six. Including training, game day, rehabilitation, media and fan commitments, athletes will be at the club by 9am and some will not leave until after dark. Statistically speaking, the working week of a professional athlete is longer than the average professional.

Travelling for matches also means long periods away from family and friends, and with the potential to go from hero to zero inside a week the mental stresses of a professional athlete can be difficult to manage. 43% of players spoke to a mental health expert in 2012, according to the AFLPA.

This is without touching on the level of scrutiny these athletes are under, often publicly scrutinised for actions that would normally go unnoticed.

So what?

For all the statistics and anecdotes, if you asked 14 year-old me and 22 year-old me if he would prefer to be an AFL footballer or a journalist, the answer would still be the same. A footballer. 

But the celebrity status comes at a cost, as does the higher-than-average pay check. There is significantly more to being a professional athlete than kicking a ball or swinging a bat.

For every Cristiano Ronaldo earning $46million a year, there are thousands of athletes earning far less. Just as for every Donald Trump, there is a struggling small business owner.

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