Hated Athletes Who We Love Again
It's simply unreasonable to ask a sports fan to put their emotions aside and be purely logical. That's not the nature of competition. It's not the nature of professional sports. And we all know that "fan" is short for "fanatic."
We are just begging for an excuse to bring out the pitchforks against our most hated athletes. Maybe they throw a superstar against the boards or destroy a quarterback's knee—but it can take far less than that kind of violence to draw our collective ire.
Our fickle nature cuts both ways. An athlete can transform from villain to hero, or vice versa, in a moment's notice. Some embrace the role, but many try to combat the image with the most effective villain remedy—success.
In other cases, the narrative is completely flipped on its head. Personal adjustments and/or a change in circumstances can transform a universally derided pariah into a sympathetic character—resulting in a drastic shift in public opinion.
It's a fine line between hero and villain— a line that isn't fixed in stone. Something as simple as the passage of time is all it takes for certain athletes to become something more than comment-troll fodder. And there are few things the public loves more than a genuine story of redemption.
There are some people who will write an athlete, or anyone else, off forever for a single offense. But most of us are ready and willing to reevaluate an opinion if and when conditions improve. Here are 10 athletes for which conditions have definitely improved.
10. Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks
For years, there's been no shortage of reasons to hate on Carmelo Anthony—mostly because he's always providing them.
In 2004, very early in his career, he was busted at the Denver International Airport after marijuana was found in his backpack. 'Melo successfully employed the "I was holding it for a friend" defense and the charges were eventually dropped, but that defense rarely carries much weight with public opinion.
As an encore presentation later that year, he appeared in the infamous "Stop Snitchin'" video, a PSA of sorts to the good people of Baltimore. The message of the campaign was to warn witnesses of criminal activity to keep their mouths shut lest they be murdered.
In 2006, Anthony was suspended for 15 games for his part in a very nasty brawl between his Nuggets and the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Two years later in 2008 he was arrested for, and ultimately pleaded guilty to, driving under the influence and was suspended for two games.
It's almost as if Anthony denoted all the even years through the decade as "being a jerk" time, because in 2010 things got ugly in Denver when he refused a contract extension and demanded a trade. He was shipped to the Knicks in early 2011 and the perception of 'Melo really didn't improve.
New York has yet to win a playoff series in two seasons with Anthony—but the one game they stole from the Heat in 2012 was better than the four-game sweep by the Celtics a year prior. And there was no one that came off looking worse during (and after) "Linsanity" than Carmelo Anthony.
That doesn't paint a very pretty portrait of 'Melo, but aside from wanting out of Denver, he hasn't been in any legit trouble in almost five years. The truth is that his flaws are usually vastly overstated and his talented is often vastly understated. It's a unique and very unfair position to be in.
People love superstars. The NBA is a superstar league. And Carmelo Anthony is one of the biggest superstars in the game today. Maybe it's time to finally start showing him some love, people! Unless you live in Denver—those folks are never going to come around.
9. Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
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At the beginning of the 2012 NFL regular season, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman was nothing—a total nobody on a nobody team. He was drafted out of Stanford in 2011 and had a pretty solid rookie season, but nobody was talking about Sherman outside of Seattle.
By midseason he was a hated agitator—a trash-talking punk on a team that was catching lucky breaks and overachieving. Even if you don't care for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, you had to wonder who the heck is Richard Sherman to be confronting him on the field and mocking him online after the game.
By the end of the season, he was a star on the rise—a fierce competitor with swagger to spare on a team that no one will underestimate in 2013. Save for the Colts, the Seahawks may have been the biggest surprise of the season, and Sherman was a big part of their defensive success.
He hasn't changed in the slightest, but the way most people view him has. Imagine if he had been running his mouth about being better than Darrelle Revis last year? It would have sparked universal mockery, rather than a serious debate. He walked the walk, so now he can talk the talk.
To be fair, there are always going to be people who hate Richard Sherman. People who prefer faux humility and blanket regurgitation of team talking points will never warm to his antics. But those of us who don't mind a little manufactured drama have definitely come around on Sherman.
8. Lolo Jones, American Olympian
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American track and field sprint hurdler Lolo Jones shot to superstardom in the months leading up to the 2012 Olympics in London. Having competed four years prior in Beijing, she wasn't a complete unknown. But after finishing a disappointing fourth in an event she was favored to win, Jones fell off the radar a bit in the interim.
And then she burst back into the public consciousness with a vengeance, shedding any remaining anonymity. During an interview with HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel in May 2012, Jones revealed that she was a virgin and spoke candidly, perhaps too candidly, about her struggles and romantic foibles.
That got everyone talking. Some people praised her. Some people mocked her. And most people wondered why anyone, including Jones herself, was talking about her virginity to begin with. It's not a topic most people have trouble avoiding. The attention she received after the interview put an intense spotlight on her heading into the game.
And then Jones finished fourth…again. Her teammates, whose resentment had clearly been building for months, were quick to unload on Jones in the media after her disappointing showing. She was devastated about her performance and immediately recognized that usually it's best to keep your private life private.
Jones didn't want to spend the entire offseason training, so she took up bobsledding as a hobby. She made the U.S. team without ever having done it before. And in January 2013, she finally won gold—with the American women at the world bobsled championships.
Suddenly, the London Games seem like a distant memory and we are back to loving Lolo.
7. A.J. Pierzynski, Texas Rangers
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Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski has been ranked among the most hated players in baseball, generally topping the annual list, for years now. In 2006, his fellow players voted him the person they'd most like to see beaned. In 2011, he was named baseball's meanest player. And in 2012, he was promoted to baseball's most hated player.
Not that it was much of a promotion. Pierzynski is hated by players and fans for entirely different reasons. Fans don't like him because they perceive him as a bad teammate. In 2006, he (then with the White Sox) was involved with an altercation with Cubs catcher Michael Barrett which resulted in a bench-clearing brawl and Pierzynski getting punched in the face.
That was the kind of behavior he became known for and his association with professional wrestling didn't do much to dispel that perception. His reputation became part of the storyline when he appeared on TNA Impact! in December 2005. Two years later, he returned to confront another TNA wrestler and in 2009, he appeared on WWE's Raw.
As explained perfectly in a 2012 Sports Illustrated article, his opponent's ire stems from "his perceived violations of baseball's other set of rules, the unwritten ones." Which is proof enough that Pierzynski has been seriously misjudged by the general public. The unwritten rules of baseball are the biggest crock in all of professional sports.
Pierzynski's so-called "violations" are absurd. He's dared to cross the pitcher's mound after being called out at first base. He dares to celebrate after making a big play. He talks too much and occasionally cusses. He sometimes throws his helmet or bat after being struck out. Oh the humanity! Normally that's just called being a competitor. But baseball isn't normal.
Former manger Ozzie Guillen said of Pierzynski, "If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less." But a number of his former teammates have stepped up over the years to defend him. Mark Buehrle has said of his antics, "Why does he do that stuff?…It's not dirty, and he doesn't really mean anything by it, but in a baseball sense, it can be kind of a big deal."
Which means it's really not a big deal. Pierzynski has learned to deal with the unpleasant reputation, but the married father of two certainly doesn't embrace it. He's still plagued by the relatively minor indiscretions of his past. It's time to let it go, people.
6. Tyrann Mathieu, NFL Draft Prospect
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Former LSU cornerback Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu experienced a spectacular fall from grace. In 2011, he was one of college football's standout sensations. His play on the field earned him a place among the Heisman finalists and Mathieu, a rare defensive finalist, sat alongside the likes of Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck when at the ceremony in New York.
Mathieu's playmaking ability is one of the reasons the offensively challenged Tigers went into the BCS Championship as the No. 1 seed in January 2012. But he didn't shine in the championship game, neither did any of his teammates, and they fell to Alabama in a terrible game which drew the worst ratings in the history of the BCS.
Unfortunately, that may have been the highlight of Mathieu's year, because things only got worse from there. In August, he was kicked off the team for failing a drug test. Members of the media immediately began speculating on his draft prospects, but Mathieu surprised many by entering drug rehab and enrolling at LSU that fall and expressing his hope to return to the team in 2013.
He surprised no one when he and three former players were arrested on drug-related chargers in late October. At that point, Mathieu was deemed all but undraftable and basically left for dead. But anyone who has followed the roller-coaster career of this kid should've known it was too soon to count him out entirely.
Suddenly, Mathieu's prospects are looking much brighter. His performance at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine impressed, but even more impressive was the honest and thoughtful way he responded to questions about his character. There's no question he was well prepared for such questions, but there's also no question the kid has matured.
The fact of the matter is that people want to like Mathieu. He's an excellent athlete, a great playmaker, and he's just exciting. That's why he went from DOA to one of the most intriguing and buzzed-about draft prospects in four months. Most of us are getting back on board the Honey Badger bandwagon—hopefully, he doesn't make us regret it.
5. Wayne Rooney, Manchester United
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Manchester United forward Wayne Rooney's talent is unquestionable. The fact that he was the third highest paid footballer in the world in 2011—right behind globally renowned superstars Cristiano Ronald and Lionel Messi—speaks for itself.
But despite having talent in spades, it's been difficult to like Rooney through much of his career because he's been kind of a terrible person. The public tends to be forgiving of personal indiscretions if the athlete is talented enough, but Rooney's behavior became hard to overlook at some point.
He started off on the wrong foot in 2002 by entering into an agreement with a new agent and management firm when he was still under contract elsewhere. Rooney didn't face any consequences himself at the time, but the fallout from the incident lasted almost eight years.
In 2006, he published his autobiography Wayne Rooney—My Story So Far, unfortunately it was part fiction. Two years later, he settled a libel suit brought by former coach David Moyes, who he accused of leaking information to the press about the reason he left Everton for United. Rooney admitted the lie, publicly apologized and paid out over £500,000.
And then there's all the prostitution stuff. Rooney met his wife Colleen in high school and they were together for six years before marrying in 2008. Within the year, she was pregnant with their first child and he was seeking the sexual services of Jennifer Thompson, a high priced escort who charged extra for threesomes—a service which Rooney was willing to pay for.
It was an ugly scandal that got intense media coverage in England, but the couple weathered the storm and are still together today—and if Colleen can forgive and forget, everyone else can too. The relatively respectful way the bile-spewing British tabloids have covered (Ex: 1, 2, 3) Rooney's recent hair transplant is proof that he's in a better place in terms of public opinion.
He has steered clear of controversy completely in the last two years and in late 2012, it was announced that Rooney's jersey is the second-leading seller among all official Barclay Premier League shirts. So apparently we all love Wayne Rooney again. Yay!
4. Matt Cooke, Pittsburgh Penguins
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Most hockey fans are going to have a hateful reaction to the inclusion of Penguins forward Matt Cooke on this list, but that's not an audience worth trying to convince. Hockey fans (me included) are the biggest grudge-holding fans in professional sports and the term "forgive and forget" is not in their lexicon.
There's no question that Cooke has a well-earned reputation as a dirty player. He was no stranger to the penalty box in the near-decade he played for Vancouver, but it wasn't until he came to the Penguins in 2008 that he really became a menace. Cooke was fined and/or suspended routinely for vicious hits and for every point he contributed, he spent 3-4 minutes in the box.
Things changed in 2011. One year after effectively ending the career of the Bruins' Marc Savard, Cooke earned the worst suspension of his career for delivering an elbow to the head of Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. For whatever reason, at that moment things just clicked for Cooke and he publicly admitted he needed to change.
And change he did. In the 2011-12 season Cooke's 44 penalty minutes were by far the least of his career (not total but divided by the number of games played). A change that continues in 2013, despite what some angry Senators fans would have you believe. Cooke's game has changed, but he has to accept that the perception of him inside the game may not—outside is a different story.
With player safety becoming a bigger issue every day, many think the NHL can't change. Matt Cooke is proof that it can. He's one of the greatest beacons of hope in the game today.
3. Brandon Marshall, Chicago Bears
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A few years ago, wide receiver Brandon Marshall seemed destined for a terrible ending. He has a long history of troublesome behavior that dates all the way back to his college days at Central Florida, when he was first arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest in late 2004. In 2005, it was retail theft. In 2006, it was reports of domestic violence.
But it wasn't until 2007 that things started to escalate. Marshall was present at a nightclub the night his teammate Darrent Williams was fatally shot by a man seeking retaliation for an altercation with his (Marshall's) cousin, and he reportedly fired a gun during an argument in which is father tried to hit him with a car. And that was just in January!
The rest of the year played out much the same way. In six different incidents he was accused of punching his girlfriend, stealing her purse, preventing her from leaving his house, throwing rocks at a car she was riding in with a friend, stabbing her in the thigh, punching her face and choking her. No charges were ever filed in any of the cases.
Charges of driving under the influence, misdemeanor battery and disorderly conduct all peppered Marshall's life through the next several years. But the medical treatment he required for a stab wound he suffered in April 2011—which was described as self-defense—seems to have been the tipping point for the troubled athlete.
Months later Marshall was diagnosed with a mental illness called Borderline Personality Disorder, which he described as "a light bulb (being) turned on in (his) dark room." He hasn't used it to excuse his past behavior, but rather a tool to shed light on his state of mind at the time and look for ways to recognize and combat the triggers.
Marshall has spoken openly about his diagnosis in recent years, hoping to help destigmatize mental illness, particularly in the black community. And everything positive he's doing off the field has translated into success on the field—he had the best season of his career with the Bears in 2012.
Brandon Marshall has transformed his life to such a degree that it would have been impossible to imagine just a few short years ago. There will always be people who hold his past against him, but most people have embraced his story of redemption.
2. LeBron James, Miami Heat
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In July 2010, NBA free agent LeBron James ended months of speculation about where he would sign when he announced that he had chosen the Heat via an hour-long prime-time special on ESPN dubbed "The Decision."
It was the most unnecessary and self-serving way to end what was perhaps the most high-profile free agency is American sports history. Made all the more needless by the fact that the news had leaked out earlier that day.
James shunned his home state Cavaliers, but the hate extended far beyond the Ohio border. A year later when the Heat were upset by the Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals, the reaction outside of Miami was elation.
Then it started to fade—at least on a national scale. James had been knocked down a peg and finally seemed to understand that the situation could have been handled more delicately. He seemed genuinely remorseful about how everything went down.
And then he won his third MVP. And then he won his first NBA Championship. And then he won his second Olympic gold medal. And then he was named SI's Sportsman of the Year 2012. Nothing clears the air more than winning.
You win, people forgive. LeBron is forgiven.
1. Mike Tyson, Retired Boxer
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There may be no more unlikely story of redemption in American sports than former boxer Mike Tyson. He made his professional debut in 1985 and went on to win 26 of his first 28 bouts.
In his first televised fight, he beat up Jesse Ferguson so severely that it was initially called a disqualification by the referee because he refused to let go of Tyson's gloves. Eventually, it was reclassified as a technical knockout, but there's no question that Ferguson was intent on ending the punishment Tyson handed out in the first five rounds by any means necessary.
He absolutely dominated the sport through the rest of the decade and in 1987, he was forever immortalized by the Nintendo classic Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! And then things started to head into the gutter. Tyson's marriage to actress Robin Givens became extremely ugly and eventually ended in divorce in 1989.
Two years later, he was arrested for and later convicted of the rape of Desiree Washington, Miss Black Rhode Island, and served three years of a six-year sentence before being released in 1995. Tyson actually made a relatively successful comeback and fought for a decade after his prison stint, but most people only remember what went wrong.
The losses, the strife with manager Don King, the bankruptcy, and the extremely unpleasant threats against Evander Holyfield (like eating his children) which culminated in Tyson biting off a chunk of his ear during their 1997 rematch. His legacy has been questioned and in 2005, he was quoted as saying my "whole life has been a waste—I've been a failure."
Tyson's problems with the law continued for years after his retirement, but at some point, things just began to shift. He began raising racing pigeons, a childhood passion, and revealed that his very first fight in life was with a childhood bully who abused one of his birds. A strange hobby indeed, but it really humanized him.
In 2009, Tyson confessed that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and a year later admitted that he was living paycheck to paycheck. That was the same year he appeared as a very endearing version of himself in the surprise blockbuster The Hangover. And things really took off for Tyson in his post-boxing life after that.
In 2012, his Broadway show Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth debuted to mixed reviews, but it was popular enough to warrant a 10-week, 26-city national tour. Tyson's affable demeanor and general popularity are so surprising given his checkered past. But he's living, breathing proof that anyone has the potential to rehab a bad reputation.