Wilfredo Lee, Associated Press
Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett (5) comes up with a rebound against Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade (3) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, April 10, 2012 in Miami.

Go ahead, bash Dwyane Wade all you want.

Call the NBA superstar unpatriotic, greedy, just another millionaire athlete who doesn't understand how good he's got it.

Then listen, really listen, to what he tried to say.

A lot of people are making a lot of money off the Olympic Games. Sponsors. Executives. Television networks. Governing bodies. Vendors. Everyone, it would seem, except the athletes.

It's a multi-billion dollar pie, why shouldn't they get a slice?

"Look, what Dwyane Wade said isn't entirely wrong," former U.S. Olympic swimmer Gary Hall Jr. told The Associated Press on Thursday. "Maybe he went about addressing the issue clumsily. But the issue he is addressing is real.

"Do the Olympic Games exploit the athlete? Absolutely. Do the Olympic Games exploit patriotism? Absolutely."

A day earlier, Wade was quoted as saying there should be some compensation for NBA stars who give up a good chunk of their summer to play in the Olympics. The Miami Heat guard was a member of the gold medal-winning American teams in 2004 and 2008, and he's agreed to compete once more at the London Games, which begin July 27.

"It's a lot of things you do for the Olympics — a lot of jerseys you sell," Wade said. "I do think guys should be compensated."

The backlash was immediate. On message boards, fans accused Wade of defaming the Olympic movement, of not caring about his country, of only being concerned about padding his already hefty bank account. There were calls for him to be left off the U.S. team.

Even some fellow Olympians considered his view out of line.

"When you're walking in the opening ceremonies behind your flag, you're thinking about all the people who stood for this country in the armed services, all the men and women who sacrificed and represented our country to the fullest," said American fencer Tim Morehouse, who won a silver medal at Beijing. "You shouldn't be thinking, 'Man, I should be paid for this.' If that's the way you're thinking, you should just stay at home."

Recognizing the maelstrom he stirred up, Wade issued a statement Thursday saying he didn't want to be any Olympic pay. He also tweeted that pride for his country "motivates me more than any $$$ amount" — which shouldn't be in question, anyway, since he's poised to join a very small club of U.S. hoopsters who have competed in three Olympics.

What a shame it turned out this way.

There was a real opportunity to make some significant changes in the whole Olympic structure, changes that would've benefited all athletes — not just a small group of NBA millionaires who don't really need the money anyway. We're talking about those who are barely scraping by, who have to take a part-time job to make ends meet, who dip into their own pockets to pay training and travel expenses because their obscure sports don't generate enough money to pick up the tab.

You know, the majority of athletes in London this summer.

"I've been waiting for one iconic athlete who would look beyond his own success and fame to help all those other athletes who have nothing to speak of," said Evan Morgenstein, the agent for a number of high-profile swimming stars such as Dara Torres and Amanda Beard. "No one makes that much money. We've been looking for the messiah."

Wade was poised to take on that role, but it appears the strong gust of negative public opinion sent him fleeing for cover. Maybe it would help if a few more high-profile athletes joined him on the firing line, crafting a message that focuses on helping all Olympians.

Hall and his longtime agent, David Arluck, have talked in the past about starting up a union to represent athletes in their dealings with the U.S. Olympic Committee, but the idea never got very far.

Now, the last thing we want to see is a strike on the eve of the opening ceremony, or the next Olympics being called off because of an IOC lockout. That said, there's no doubt that the current labor arrangement is far too one-sided in favor of those who watch the games from the private boxes, decked out in tailored suits.

"The culture has to change," Arluck said. "There's always been a lot of talk about unionizing. But nothing has really happened. That's a real shame."

For a start, Hall suggested, how about setting aside 5 percent of all TV revenues for the men and women we're actually watching on the tube? NBC will be paying $4.38 billion for U.S. broadcast rights at the next four Olympics. Using Hall's modest figure, that would create an athletes' pool of $219 million — which breaks down to roughly about $8,400 per athlete (the Summer Games are supposed to be capped at 10,500 athletes, while the much-smaller Winter Games generally have about 2,500). The number grows when rights fees from the rest of the world are factored in.

Morgenstein said the figure should be much higher — a minimum of 45 percent of the television revenues going to the athletes, more in line with the labor agreements for the major U.S. professional leagues.

"All the executives in the blue blazers are clinking their glasses of wine at their retreats," the agent said. "The athletes are nothing more than indentured servants. That's the hideous truth of the Olympic movement."

But give the guys who run the movement credit: They've managed to persuade athletes the world over, both rich and poor, that competing for love of country should be enough. It's a concept that many find hard to shake, even if they clearly understand the concept of fair compensation in their regular jobs.

"It's not about the money to me," said Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kimmo Timonen, who has competed in three Winter Games for his native Finland. "It's an honor. You represent your country. And that's pretty much all I need."

Here's hoping a certain Miami Heat guard returns to the fray, bearing a different message.

"Dwyane Wade is a hero," Morgenstein said. "Believe me, there are plenty of athletes who want to scream out to him, 'Don't get on the lifeboat and leave us on a ship that's going down. Take us with you.' I'm hoping that someone will hear his voice. He could the messiah of Olympic athletes."

AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963