Often, when I'm watching a movie with an attractive Hollywood star playing a normal person, like a lawyer or doctor or something, I catch myself wondering: When do they have time to go to the gym? Not the actor: Spending all day at the gym is part of the job description. (Look what's happened to poor Andy Dwyer.) I mean the character: Thinking about how this anonymous doctor can find time in his day to apparently work out for two hours inevitably takes me out of the movie. This most recently happened with the surprisingly good film Snitch, which asked me to believe that a suburban small businessman who spends most his day running numbers ended up looking like The Rock. (In one scene, a group of teenage punks beat up The Rock, who's supposed to be an innocent civilian who doesn't understand the drug underworld. It must have been difficult for The Rock to keep from giggling as these reedy nerds fake-karate-kicked him.)
Yet I, and all of us I suspect, find it much easier to forget sometimes about what goes into being a professional athlete. When we imagine their lives, we most likely see a perpetual succession of huge crowds chanting their names, first-class plane rides to exotic destinations across the globe, gymnastic sexual encounters with perfect-looking people and diamond showerheads that dispense $100 bills. Nevermind the fact that they get to play a game as a profession, a game we all adore. This is why we feel so comfortable booing them and grousing about their poor play (particularly when it's affecting our fantasy team). We assume the lives of these athletes are just non-stop bliss and glory. We assume they somehow don't deserve it. Who would? Maybe if they partied a little less, they might win more games, eh?
This, of course, isn't how athletes' lives are lived at all. Athletes, during the off-season, spend the vast majority of their time training. There is nothing glamorous about training. It's nothing but sweat and grime and blood and pain and sacrifice, and they do it over and over and over, rep after rep. And you do this almost entirely alone. There is no glamour, there are no fans, there are no clubs. It is just them, putting in the hours, day after day. Do they have it easier than the rest of us? Sure. They have access to the best equipment, best trainers, best and most efficient routines. They still have to do it. They still have to work.
Which is the main reason I look forward to ESPN: The Magazine's Body Issue every year. The mag just hit stands this week, and you're already hearing tons of sniggering, like you do every year, whether it's about John Wall's strategically placed bubbles, Matt Harvey's comfort robe or Gary Player showing off how he's in so much better shape than you despite being 40 years older. But to me, there's no better example every year of just how different athletes are from you and me, how much they put themselves through in the isolation of intense training, than the Body Issue.
I mean, look at them! That is the human body in its purest form, all the fat and gristle scrubbed off -- youth, power, speed and dedication wrapped up in a perfect physical package. This is what human beings can look like. This is why humanity was fascinated by athletics in the first place, to push the limits of the body, to see what it was capable of.
It's telling that these athletes -- who have become more and more off-limits to reporters and cameras in recent years -- have been so eager to show everything for this issue. This is, after all, their instrument, their art: This is the fruit of their labors. They spent years achieving this perfection. The body does not lie. We can question an athlete's heart, their devotion, their virtue, but we cannot question this. The Body Issue, in this context, is perhaps the most honest piece of sports journalism possible.
Listen, I understand the tittering. Tom Scocca of Deadspin wrote a very funny "Where Are ESPN's Naked Jocks Hiding and Tucking Their Bits?" column a couple of years ago. ("There, all covered -- but for God's sake, don't move!") It's tough not to giggle when poor Giancarlo Stanton has to pose like Atlas or Vernon Davis has to hold footballs over his penis, the oldest and dumbest sports photography cliche. (Every photographer who doesn't know anything about sports thinks they're the first to ever come up with this idea. You're not.) There's obviously a titillation factor involved. But I'll take this sort of titillation -- the display of professionally sculpted bodies, with equal gender representation, showing people we know in ways we've never seen before -- over the pathetic middle-aged-white-man slobbering of Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Edition, a yearly anachronistic embarrassment for a magazine that's otherwise been doing lots of positive things lately. This feels true.
My favorite pictorial in the new issue is one that isn't titillating, or even all that artistic: It's 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the subject of an idiotic "controversy" last year, standing there as he is, tattooed, strong, fierce, defiant … himself. We all type and blather and babble and twist everything in sports into some sort of moralist battle for the soul of America. But that's not what it is: At its core, it is the finest athletes in the world competing against each other. It is easy to forget this. But ESPN's Body Issue always reminds me.
And it also reminds me that I need to get to the gym myself.