Why Are Some Athletes Underrated and Others Overrated? Pt. 1

Mark HauserCorrespondent IIFebruary 20, 2009

Originally, I was going to write two articles, i.e., separate lists of underrated and overrated athletes.  I decided, however, against these two articles for several reasons:  1) they have been done before; 2) these lists seem very subjective; 3) I am not a big fan of overrated lists; and 4) it is often unclear how an athlete is actually "rated" by so-called experts, other players, coaches, serious fans, and casual fans. 

All sports fans have seen lists of underrated and overrated athletes in newspapers and sports magazines, and a quick search on the Internet will produce access to several more lists. 

Several of the lists (or at least part of the lists) I thought were very inaccurate, and the fact that some athletes show up on both (!) lists confirms this.  After all, logically, one of the lists has to be wrong (maybe both are wrong -- who knows). 

Now, I do not know for sure if the lists are inaccurate because I do not know for sure exactly how accurately any athlete is actually rated by the public.

After all, there have been very few comprehensive actual surveys ranking specific athletes or teams.  That is the main reason I developed my web site, ultimatesportsrankings.com, so that millions of people can rank how good they think athletes and teams are.

But until we get millions (or at least thousands) of votes on each question, the accuracy will not be there.

In addition, how an athlete is rated can be different, depending on who is doing the rating.  For instance, experts, players, coaches, serious fans, and casual fans may all rank an athlete's abilities differently. 

So, when someone says that some athlete is underrated or overrated, I think it is important to ask three things: 1) underrated or overrated by whom?; 2) how do we know for sure if they are overrated or underrated?; and 3) if an athlete is underrated or overrated -- how did he or she get that way?

How a person ranks another person's ability in something, sports or otherwise, is always subjective.  The likes, biases, and prejudices of the person doing the rankings will inevitably affect how they rank someone or something.

This factor, coupled with the fact that it is often very unclear how a specific athlete is actually rated or whose rating we are talking about, makes a specific individual's list of underrated and overrated athletes practically meaningless.  Harsh, but true. 

We need to have an accurate ranking of an athlete's abilities (based upon lots of informed votes), PLUS lots of lists of underrated and overrated athletes totaled together (again by informed people) before we begin to have any underrated and overrated lists that have any accuracy. 

Numerous people are necessary to do the rankings and lists so that people's likes, biases, and prejudices will offset each other.

Now you know why I have never been a big fan of overrated lists; they are often unfair and inaccurate.  The same could be said, of course, about underrated lists, but at least those lists are meant as a compliment and not as an insult.

As noted above, how an athlete is rated can vary, depending on which of the five groups listed above is doing the rating.  An athlete, for example, could be rated much higher by other players in the athlete's sport than they are by casual fans, and vice versa. 

Hence, assuming we figure out what an athlete's "true rating" actually is, some athletes could actually be overrated by some groups and underrated by other groups.  What a mess! 

But, let us say that we actually get an accurate rating of an athlete's abilities and we agree, somehow, that our perceived ranking is a combination of the five groups above.  Then, why do some athletes inevitably end up underrated and others end up overrated?

Not surprisingly, the answer to this question is not clear, however (and also not surprisingly), I do have some theories.  It is first important to note that athletes in team sports are more likely to be underrated and overrated than athletes in an individual sport. 

This is because an athlete's accomplishments in an individual sport stand on their own more clearly than an athlete's accomplishments in a team sport (for obvious reasons). 

I think athletes get overrated when one or more specific things occur.  First, when an athlete played a decent percentage of his career in a large market, especially New York.

Large markets have greater media coverage, hence, the athlete's accomplishments become well-publicized.  (If you are dying for examples, okay, but keep in mind I am not a big fan of labeling athletes as overrated.) 

Joe Namath, Joe DiMaggio, and Phil Rizzuto come to mind.  (Although Joe Namath is talked about as being overrated so often and is on so many peoples lists, I wonder if he is starting to become underrated by some people.  Just a thought -- I do not know if this is true.) 

Second is when an athlete has played on numerous championship teams.  Same theory, the playoffs and championship games always get more publicity and, most importantly, television coverage. 

Incidentally, this happens most often in basketball and, to a lesser extent, with the quarterback position in American football.  At first, it may seem to be just the opposite, because in basketball, more than any other team sport (at least in the U.S.), a great player can influence his team's chances of winning a championship. 

However, sports fans are aware of this, hence, they put more emphasis on the number of championships won by a great basketball player when evaluating how great the player's career was.  And sometimes, they put too much emphasis on this fact. 

Bill Russell is an example of this.  While he may not be overrated if you polled all basketball fans (especially younger ones who might actually underrate him), the people who still think he is the greatest basketball player of all time because of his 11 championships (the most in NBA history) are overrating Russell and overemphasizing the championships his TEAM won. 

Michael Jordan (six championships) is the greatest basketball player of all time, and it is pretty clear. (For a full discussion of this see my article, "The 25 Greatest Basketball Players of All Time.")

The bottom line is that championships are won by teams, not individuals, and a single player can only influence the outcome of a game only so much. 

Players only have so much control (before free agency, practically none) over how much talent is on the teams that they play with throughout their career.

In baseball, a player has very little control over whether his team wins a World Series (although this would not be true if starting pitchers were physically capable of pitching every day). 

However, sometimes people forget about this fact and can overrate a player who played on a lot of championship teams (again, DiMaggio and Rizzuto are good examples).  A quarterback in football, because of the uniqueness of the position, has a lot of influence over the outcome of a football game. 

However, he is still only one of 22 players on the field at any given time and plays less than 50 percent of the time.  Contrast this to basketball, where a player is one of only 10 players on the court at any specific time, and a star player usually plays around 80 percent of the game (i.e., 40 of 48 minutes), often more in important, close playoff games. 

In addition, a star player in basketball may sometimes take one-third of his team's shots during a game and has to play both offense and defense.

Hence, it is safe to say that a great basketball player has more influence than even a quarterback in football over whether his team wins a championship.

Individual football players who do not play the quarterback position usually do not have a lot of influence over whether their team wins a championship, however, there are exceptions. 

A great quarterback's legacy is routinely judged by how many Super Bowls (or NFL championships for pre-1966 quarterbacks) "he" won. 

But, sometimes quarterbacks are given too much blame when a game is lost and too much credit for their teams winning NFL Championships (although probably not Otto Graham ... see below), especially Super Bowls, because of the almost unbelievable publicity and worldwide coverage of these games.

(In addition, quarterbacks get more MVP Awards in Super Bowls than they deserve, because sportswriters and sportscasters get blinded by the importance of the position.)