The 50 Most Polarizing Players in Sports

Zack Pumerantz@z_pumerantzAnalyst IIIApril 18, 2012

The 50 Most Polarizing Players in Sports

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    Beloved. Despised. Dissected. A vicious never-ending circle for many sports stars.

    As they scratch, claw and tear for that phenomenal score or honorable assist, many world-class athletes can't seem to escape the controversial flavor present in their repertoire.

    A combination of athletic prowess and questionable personality has provoked both hardcore respect and enthusiastic disdain from sports fans. These competitors never seem to be able to please the masses.

    While they bask in their divisive auras, we'll take a look at the 50 most polarizing players in sports, dividing fanbases one appearance at a time.

50. Tony Romo

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    Perhaps the greatest loser ever to approach the gridiron, Tony Romo produces elite statistics every season before crumbling under the excruciating (and now skeptical) NFL spotlight.

    The talent is certainly there, but the lack of clutch production fails to conjure any optimism in Dallas.

    The rest of the league continues to stifle its nausea.

49. Paul Pierce

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    Some resent his ugly-yet-effective shot; others applaud his production. Paul Pierce is adored by many, loathed by many more.

    Many seem to believe his arrogance grew following the arrival of his All-Star sidekicks. A sickening, yet potent performance every time.

48. Jonathan Papelbon

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    With the longest stare in baseball, Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon sickens even his own fans, especially those eager to beat the traffic.

    His excessive celebrations and overrated contract give us plenty of reason to hope he one day gets trucked by Jerome Bettis while on the mound.

    But there will always be the Papelbon fanatics.

47. Danica Patrick

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    We respect her status as the only woman to win in the IndyCar Series, but enough with the "Go Daddy" commercials already. We're moments away from chucking the remote.

    After seven years of prosperity on the track, we have yet to figure out whether she's a sex icon or star athlete.

    Seems like she's leaning towards the latter with this elegant pose.

46. Ricky Williams

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    Once displaying possibly the greatest feet ever to reach the football field, Ricky Williams tarnished his reputation a bit when he abruptly retired from football.

    While we respect his holistic medicine curiosities, leaving the game he so eloquently dominated since his arrival in 1999 (when Mike Ditka traded all of the Saints' draft picks to get him at No. 5) certainly left a bad taste in fans' mouths.

    He's been solid, yet unspectacular since his return. Oh, what could have been.

45. Dion Phaneuf

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    Some call him the most overrated player patrolling NHL rinks—others a fearless hitter willing to dish out a lick whenever he feels inclined.

    But we'll always respect his all-around domination, aggressive demeanor and love life. Elisha Cuthbert...nicely done.

44. Kris Humphries

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    Despite rarely starting before last season, Kris Humphries saw himself rise the charts of the NBA's most hated after a short-lived, yet high-profile marriage to WAG extraordinaire Kim Kardashian.

    But let's be real—most of us are Team Kris at this point, if only because of our disdain for his manipulative ex-"wife."

    Enough with the Kardashian reality enterprise.

43. Ben Roethlisberger

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    Tough as nails on the field and far beyond controversial off it, Ben Roethlisberger is building quite the divisive legacy.

    Sexual assault allegations have seemingly tainted an otherwise flawless reputation that features two Super Bowl rings and a shockingly entertaining highlight reel.

42. Dany Heatley

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    Obviously a lethal scorer (325 career goals), Dany Heatley has inherited quite the mass of haters during his tenure in the NHL for his constant trade demands.

    After requesting out of Atlanta following his tragic car accident that saw friend and teammate Dan Synder lose his life (via ESPN's Scott Burnside), Heatley found himself in Ottawa where he continued to dominate.

    But after four seasons with the Senators, Heatley once again demanded a trade. 

    After unbelievably refusing to waive his no-trade clause for Edmonton, Heatley accepted a trade to San Jose. He was traded to Minnesota two years later, carving his own script it seems.

41. Anna Kournikova

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    Maxim. Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Enrique Iglesias music videos. Anna Kournikova has certainly filled all the crevices of sports beauty.

    But having never won a WTA title in singles gives tennis enthusiasts plenty of fuel for the fire.

    She'll always be a hot Google search, yet rarely will fans be searching for athletic highlight reels.

40. Reggie Bush

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    Few had the high-flying college career that Reggie Bush had during his days in Southern California, running circles around defenders for the illustrious Trojans.

    But after an intensely promising entrance into the NFL, Bush began garnering more attention for off-field romances than he did for gridiron production (albeit lacking).

    After just finishing his first 1,000-yard season (first year with the Dolphins), Bush seems determined to stay relevant.

39. Eli Manning

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    Clutch, driven, stoically awkward—there are so many varying qualities that describe the younger Manning brother, we can't settle on just one.

    His constant shoulder shrugging and strange facial expressions beg us to scratch our heads, but his nail-biting finishes and humble (albeit confident) demeanor make us fall in love, one "Omaha" at a time.

    A true anomaly.

38. Alexander Ovechkin

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    With prosperity comes success, and Alex Ovechkin's early domination certainly garnered a solid amount of haters.

    Conditioning questions, controversial hits, reckless styles of play...they've all played into the ubiquitous doubt surrounding this superstar winger.

    But his rapping prowess is never questioned.

37. John Cena

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    With his honest and respectful nature, John Cena is seemingly the poster boy for what the new WWE is all about—a more family-friendly environment.

    Older fans want the historical WWE back, with violence and vicious slogans ready to instigate the tossing of large pottery and cold drinks.

    We can't disrespect Cena's effort, yet we can certainly shake our heads at his admirable approach.

    One word: jorts.

36. Jeremy Lin

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    Humble, honorable and respectful are some of the few qualities that Jeremy Lin exudes on and off the hardwood.

    His unlikely and perhaps untimely success certainly provided a spark to the NBA (and especially New York), but the resulting "Linsanity" rubbed many the wrong way.

    The media once again attempts to build a legacy. He's got the whole world in his hands.

35. Plaxico Burress

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    Perhaps it's mostly antipathy that floods this once-renowned resume, but Plaxico Burress' Super Bowl-winning catch for the Giants in '08 isn't quite covered in spider webs just yet.

    Shooting himself in Cheddar Bob fashion seemingly clouded Burress' success in New York. Last year was expired icing on the cake, with uncomfortable results.

34. Todd Bertuzzi

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    Once beloved by the eager hockey world for his rough nature and brutal scoring prowess, Todd Bertuzzi found himself at the center of perhaps the most disgraceful act in NHL history.

    Ending Steve Moore's career with one lethal punch from behind caught the entire sports world by surprise.

    We're still scraping our jaws off the living-room carpet.

33. Thierry Henry

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    A star footballer with prolific scoring ability and a propensity for speaking out against racism, of course he's beloved.

    But his on-pitch reputation took a serious hit before the 2010 World Cup, when Thierry Henry was seen controlling the ball twice with his hand.

    He's earned the title of worldwide cheat few will let him live it down.

32. Kevin Garnett

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    Certainly an elite defender and legendary scorer, Kevin Garnett is embraced by home fans and hated by the rest of the sports world for his eccentric and weird ways.

    He pumps his chest, aggravates opponents, trash-talks better than most and often hints at arrogance.

    But his fashion sense is never questioned. KG always keeps it real.

31. Ray Lewis

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    Brutal, fearless, relentless—several of the many honorable traits that Ray Lewis has displayed while dominating the middle linebacker position since 1996.

    Murder allegations following a Super Bowl XXXIV party in Atlanta in 2000, however, were certainly detrimental to his glorious reputation, although the hate has seemingly faded since then.

    But as such a dominant figure, Ray Ray will always be surrounded by doubters.

30. Antonio Margarito

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    The boxing world loves an aggressive fighter, especially when he possess an iron chin, a willing nature and a threatening hook.

    But former WBA, WBO and IBF welterweight champion Antonio Margarito tarnished his once-beloved reputation when his corner was caught tampering with his gloves before a fight with Shane Mosley.

    The CSAC discovered sulfur and calcium (forms Plaster of Paris when combined with oxygen). The boxing world was not pleased.

29. Phil Mickelson

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    While Lefty is certainly admired by many fans and remains one of the most marketable athletes, it's his on-course demeanor that keeps his peers snarling in the shadows.

    One notorious nickname pretty much sums it up for us: He goes by the name of "FIGJAM" to those who know him best.

28. Dwight Howard

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    An athletic phenom with the ability to posterize any vulnerable defender, Magic center Dwight Howard (now sitting out with a herniated disc) traveled quite the tumultuous journey this season, gaining several doubters along the way.

    While we respect his loyalty, Howard's indecisive nature and apparent hope for his coach to be fired doesn't sit well with the rest of the league.

    WKMG's David Pingalore recently reported that the All-Star center will no longer play for Stan Van Gundy.

27. Laleh Seddigh

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    A race car driver from Iran, Laleh Seddigh is quickly gaining a loyal following and a throng of threatened conservatives, those unwilling to improve the rights of women in the country.

    But Seddigh is an icon, the poster girl for change in her native Iran. After finding a loophole in the law that bans women from competing in sports, she began to accelerate towards greatness.

    The Little Schumacher is making history one "vroom" at a time.

26. Vince Carter

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    If athletic ability alone determined greatness, Vince Carter would headline the game as perhaps the best ever.

    Once seen as the next Michael Jordan (like so many others), Carter never quite found the legendary level of play once predicted (yes, eight All-Star appearances is nice, but not historic). 

    His dunks shatter crowds, but his inconsistency continues to frustrate his fans.

25. Chris Pronger

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    He's appeared in the Stanley Cup Finals with three different teams and was the first defenseman since Bobby Orr in '72 to win the league's Hart Trophy (most valuable player).

    Chris Pronger's approach towards the media, trade request out of Edmonton (per ESPN) and sometimes disrespectful on-ice antics have garnered natural hate.

    For many, it's a pure disdain.

24. Jeff Gordon

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    As every one of his 85 career wins piled up, Jeff Gordon was seemingly loathed just a bit more.

    From Rookie of the Year to Hall of Fame inductee, Gordon officially took the racing world by storm. Some were not pleased.

    It didn't help that his first rival was Dale Earnhardt, and that he actually sponsors polarizing sunglasses.

23. Carmelo Anthony

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    A soft-touched scorer and legendary baller, Carmelo Anthony has always found himself resting somewhere in between great and overrated.

    While he can certainly swish it with the best of them, 'Melo's ball-hog ways and lacking defense have caused many to question his efficiency.

    Several arrests haven't helped his cause, but he now seems determined to solidify himself in the Big Apple.

22. Alex Rodriguez

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    Once seen as perhaps the greatest shortstop in the league, Alex Rodriguez watched a soon-to-be legendary career in Seattle become a high-priced, yet unsuccessful campaign in Texas. He finally arrived in the pinstriped part of New York...as a third baseman, no less.

    While certainly talented, his clutch-less performances and strange romantic flings have us questioning A-Rod's legacy.

21. Ndamukong Suh

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    From most liked to most hated, Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh came a long way since being seen as the savior in Detroit after a stellar Rookie of the Year campaign in 2010.

    After a stomping incident and a drop-off in production last season, Suh began to garner plenty of hate from those questioning his respect for the game. 

    There's still time to blossom for this budding star.

20. Michael Vick

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    You may assume he's got more haters than fans, but Michael Vick is still perhaps the most exciting player in the game today. We know he's got plenty of admirers.

    Dog-fighting charges certainly tarnished a once-promising arsenal, but Vick continues to work his way back amid conflicting responses.

    We're still waiting to see what happens.

19. Tom Brady

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    Nothing personal, Tom, but you must understand that success breeds hate.

    While he's certainly had plenty of that, it was Spygate that had people truly beginning to despise the Patriots as a whole.

    We're now questioning most of their early success (or, rather, it adds fuel to our necessary fire).

    Cutting down on the cha-cha dances and the ponytail might help a bit.

18. Derek Jeter

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    People hate perfection, and Derek Jeter has always scratched at it.

    He never says the wrong thing, he's dated every fantasy celebrity known to man, he's got five World Series rings and he's a loyal teammate.

    Time to respect the consummate professional.

17. Jon Jones

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    The youngest UFC title holder in history is clearly a stellar talent—the ultimate next-generation fighter.

    But while he certainly exudes greatness, Jon Jones is quite aware of how unbeatable he truly is. 

    As his own biggest fan, Bones Jones presents an arrogance that can't possibly be matched. We can only imagine how he's eclipsed A-Rod's mirror picture.

16. Randy Moss

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    During his legendary, yet sometimes lackadaisical career, Randy Moss has found himself simultaneously adored and loathed by those lucky enough to watch him shine.

    Despite possessing one of the best pair of hands the gridiron has ever seen, Moss' career has been flooded with shockingly inappropriate comments, an instance of leaving the field and lapses in effort.

    But he'll always be revered for his world-class athleticism.

15. Apolo Ohno

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    Sure, he became the youngest to win essentially every short-speed skating event at the Winter Olympics, but Apolo Ohno's reputation took a serious hit when he was involved in two controversies.

    Some wondered whether he purposely finished third in a qualification race during the U.S. Olympic Trials to allow Shani Davis to make it. Others were furious when South-Korean skater Kim Dong-Sung was disqualified for allegedly blocking Ohno.

    A Sports Illustrated cover only increased the division between his supporters and haters.

14. Jimmie Johnson

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    The driver who fans love to hate, Jimmie Johnson is almost beloved for how easy he is to despise.

    The only driver in history to win five consecutive championships and the first to become Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, Johnson naturally provokes clenched fists from viewers.

    But there is a quiet crew who certainly loves him—Vegas bookies.

13. David Beckham

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    Seemingly the poster boy of soccer, David Beckham was expected to improve the fading American soccer game when he signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007.

    Five years later and it's clear Becks hasn't been as influential in the States as he was in England. However, he stays relevant with a bevy of modeling endeavors, a world-class kick and a creative array of haircuts.

12. Metta World Peace

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    Instigation and classless shoving can certainly provoke hate from disapproving fans, but it was Metta World Peace's part in the 2004 Malice at the Palace that really had the NBA world in shock.

    Since his ferocious sprint into the stands, the man once known as Ron Artest has seemingly cleaned up his act a bit.

    But his rap attempts and outspoken behavior tend to rub fans different ways.

11. Mario Balotelli

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    Perhaps the most eccentric personality ever to play professional sports, Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli only adds to his baffling resume with every head-scratching act.

    He's turned his Manchester mansion's backyard into a racetrack for quad bikes, crashed into a women's prison and used his iPad on the bench.

    But it's his humor that really gets us.

10. The Williams Sisters

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    A fast track to success following their arrival from Compton, Calif. excited many fans and—let us not forget—angered others.

    They are simultaneously beloved and berated, but have come a long way since their loud, chatty and argumentative ways.

    Health scares have seemingly "perspective" according to ESPN's Greg Garber, and they're en route to completing their role-model legacies on the tennis court.

9. Sean Avery

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    Few players garner as much hate as Sean Avery does, yet he somehow keeps teammates and fans of his home team quite entertained.

    His respect for the game seems absent.

8. Chad Ochocinco

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    As he quietly fades from the NFL scene, we continue to question Chad Ochocinco's rise to greatness.

    Once an all-everything receiver for the Bengals, the man once known as Chad Johnson began to embrace the attention with fully extended arms and became a reality television dweller.

    We loved his ridiculous interviews, humorous off-field endeavors and creative monikers, but after changing his name, we began to grow tired of the mercurial receiver.

    All we can say is "child, please."

7. Cristiano Ronaldo

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    Wealth, endless conquests and an affinity for the flop—the ingredients that have garnered both hate and respect for Cristiano Ronaldo.

    Ronaldo's often-selfish style of play and world-class diving leave fans questioning his greatness.

    He'll always be a step below humble hero Lionel Messi.

6. Kobe Bryant

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    A scoring machine, defensive wiz and stellar passer, Kobe Bryant dominates the game of basketball with a sleek shot and quick hands.

    But it's these same qualities that led to a messy divorce saga and sexual assault allegations, tainting an otherwise legendary resume.

    And let's not forget the trade demands throughout his career (per ESPN). Kobe and his five rings continue to quietly cruise towards the Hall.

5. Tiger Woods

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    Where do we begin in regards to arguably the greatest golfer ever to approach a back nine, once a hero and a role model to the world's youth?

    If not for his intensely adulterous ways, Tiger Woods would be revered (like he was before) for his 14 major golf championships and his legendary swing.

    Unfortunately, he had a few minor setbacks.

4. Sidney Crosby

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    Wincing, cringing, crying, scoring—Sidney Crosby can do it all on the ice. 

    Since winning a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal before the age of 25, the face of hockey and his concussion problems have seemingly given way to a humbler, possibly more lethal scoring threat by the name of Evgeni Malkin.

    Crosby's ridiculous attempt at "Mustache March" doesn't help his cause.

3. Floyd Mayweather Jr.

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    Trash-talking, arrogance, classless punches—it's all played into Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s lacking reputation.

    But at 42-0, he's naturally garnered plenty of awe-inspired fans, those who believe he is the best in the game.

    Only a fight with Manny Pacquiao could truly cement his legacy.

2. LeBron James

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    Ah, the mecca of controversy without warrant—LeBron James in the flesh.

    Following his high-profile decision, perhaps the greatest NBA talent in today's game found himself yearning for a ring and shooing away the haters.

    Many love and respect his game, but few can truly say they look up to him as a legend.

1. Tim Tebow

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    Easily the most divisive figure perusing the face of the Earth, Tim Tebow was seen as a higher being during his championship days at Florida.

    His entrance into the NFL brought skepticism and optimism from both his doubters and supporters. But it's been his religious ferocity and unlikely highlight reels that keep us baffled.

    He is now perhaps the most scrutinized backup quarterback of all time.