10 Athletes Unfairly Vilified by Sports Fans and Social Media

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistSeptember 20, 2016

10 Athletes Unfairly Vilified by Sports Fans and Social Media

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    Bryce Harper is on a mission to change baseball's "tired" unwritten rules, which rubs some fans the wrong way.
    Bryce Harper is on a mission to change baseball's "tired" unwritten rules, which rubs some fans the wrong way.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Sports fans don't always appreciate greatness until it's too late.

    Fanatics and pundits alike are often too busy nostalgically gushing over old players to respect the current studs. By constantly comparing people from different eras, stars are often held to unfairly high standards.

    The curse of hype also creates unrealistic expectations. The five No. 1 draft picks on this list have all achieve incredible careers. Although it's too early to tell for two of them while controversy engulfs another, they could all finish as Hall of Famers.

    So why is it never enough? What will it take to earn everyone's respect and/or admiration?

    For some, their unconventional style rubs traditionalists the wrong way. The NBA stars transformed from hero to villain by teaming up with strong allies. It's honestly unclear why some other athletes are irrationally detested.

    Let's look at 10 premier athletes who have still not won everyone's adoration.

Sidney Crosby

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    Sidney Crosby has not escaped a reputation as soft that NHL fans bestowed upon him years ago.
    Sidney Crosby has not escaped a reputation as soft that NHL fans bestowed upon him years ago.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Vilified for: Perceived softness and...other reasons?

    As someone who doesn't religiously follow hockey, the swarming amount of dislike for Sidney Crosby doesn't make sense.

    Only 11 active players have tallied more points than the 29-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins captain, who earned his second Stanley Cup months ago. The two-time Hart Trophy winner has heard countless "Crosby sucks" chants despite all the mounting evidence proving otherwise.

    So why do people hate Sidney Crosby? There's a Reddit thread (Warning: NSFW language) devoted to answering the question. The word "whiny" comes up three times, usually followed by another unprintable descriptor. Another scholar notes his "super punchable-looking face."

    Hockey is a physical, high-contact sport that oversees regular fighting. Crosby, meanwhile, is a finesse playmaker branded as the next NHL superstar before Pittsburgh drafted him with the No. 1 pick 11 years ago.

    He has met the hype and matured on the ice, but fans still see him as a soft, cocky kid handed stardom while the "real" and "tough" hockey players traded fists. Yet Crosby is a future Hall of Famer who puts points on the board, which seems like more than enough to earn everyone's respect.

Kevin Durant

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    Kevin Durant became public enemy No. 1 after joining forces with the Golden State Warriors.
    Kevin Durant became public enemy No. 1 after joining forces with the Golden State Warriors.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

    Vilified for: Signing with the enemy

    A successful 27-year-old man decided to take a promising new job offer. What a jerk?

    Fans are loyal to their teams, so they expect the same unwavering support from the players. Forget that owners and general mangers will ditch them in a heartbeat if it improves the club. And that players rarely have a say in where they begin their careers, instead falling at the mercy of a draft. And that plenty of fans also jump on a better bandwagon.

    Nevertheless, scorned fans freak out every time a star signs elsewhere in free agency. Kevin Durant, an MVP who climbed to the top of his profession, had the pick of job opportunities. He opted for a change, leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors.

    Jerseys burned. The same people who criticize athletes without championships admonished him for pursuing a championship on a superior team. 

    Paul Pierce—who won a title with fellow superstars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen—took a shot at Durant for switching allegiances after losing in the Western Conference Finals. Charles Barkley—who forced a trade to the Houston Rockets to play alongside Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler—said he was "disappointed" in Durant's decision on Mike & Mike.

    Fans forget that athletes are professional employees doing their job. When choosing where to work, who wouldn't consider the company's culture and environment, factors that attracted the star forward to Golden State?

    It's his life and his decision. He wanted to play in a vibrant town for a loose, fun organization alongside some of his top peers. That doesn't sound like a villainous origin story.

Bryce Harper

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    Bryce Harper is trying to save baseball from the rigid old guard chasing young supporters away.
    Bryce Harper is trying to save baseball from the rigid old guard chasing young supporters away.Greg Fiume/Getty Images

    Vilified for: Fighting against baseball's unwritten rules

    "The second problem was location: if you want to choke Bryce Harper—and I suspect if you played with him, you might—ask him to come up the tunnel and then choke him. You don’t do it in the dugout for everyone in the world to see; you keep that stuff private."

    Lee Judge, a writer paid by the Kansas City Star to write words, actually wrote those words when Jonathan Papelbon choked Bryce Harper last September. A man put his arms around another man, and people took the aggressor's side.

    After the incident, Fox Sports' C.J. Nitkowski relayed accounts from players, including: "Pap did what should have been done three years ago" and "I would have done the same thing if I were Papelbon." Some fans echoed this ridiculousness.

    Fans probably don't hate Harper as much as his peers, who voted him MLB's most overrated player before his 2015 MVP campaign. Why do they despise him? Because he's good, and he knows it. Or as he told Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci last year: “Because you wrote a story when I was 16.”

    Last September for ESPN The Magazine's Tim Keown, Harper challenged the "tired" unwritten baseball code of throwing baseballs at other adults for perceived sights. Before Papelbon directed his anger to his own teammate, he drilled Manny Machado for having the gall to hit a home run earlier in the game. Harper didn't endorse his teammate putting an opponent on base.

    Many people Harper's age (23) have turned away from baseball, a sport that stifles personality with its ridiculous moral codes. The star outfielder is pushing back with his brash style and "Make Baseball Fun Again" campaign.

    Hopefully his generation of emerging stars saves the game from people like Papelbon.

LeBron James

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    No matter what he does, LeBron James always has critics questioning his greatness.
    No matter what he does, LeBron James always has critics questioning his greatness.David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Vilified for: The Decision, not being Michael Jordan (yet)

    The Decision was ill-contrived. As covered with Durant, LeBron James had no obligation to stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Slowly turning the knife on a dragged-out TV special, however, was a tad harsh.

    It also raised money for Boys & Girls Clubs across Ohio, and James remains dedicated to helping the community with his foundation, which pays for kids' college education. If that's his misstep, it's time to respect his greatness.

    His charitable side is how he most differs from Michael Jordan. From the understanding that many things are more important than basketball, James has already carved out a more memorable legacy.

    Making the NBA Finals six straight times is also pretty sweet. But the 31-year-old has only won three championships. Jordan has six. Jordan, who retired for the second of three times right as Tim Duncan entered the league, would have had no trouble against the San Antonio Spurs.

    With Skip Bayless beating the drum, even as James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a historic Finals comeback over Golden State, one of the greatest players of all time can never escape Jordan's shadow. Even worse, fans wrongly think another retired shooting guard was better. 

    In an ESPN SportsNation poll earlier this month, 48 percent of respondents labeled Kobe Bryant the greatest player since Jordan. False. The correct answer is James, a far superior passer, rebounder, defender and teammate—there's no way he would derail a franchise by hogging the spotlight during his final years—than the Black Mamba.

    Actually, he's also a better scorer. Per Basketball-Reference.com, Bryant retired with a 55.0 true-shooting percentage. James, sporting a 58.1 clip, has never held a percentage of 55 or lower since his rookie campaign.

    Also courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, James owns a 27.65 career player efficiency rating (PER), second to Jordan's 27.91. What's absurd about someone who visits the Finals annually claiming a few more titles and challenging His Airness' spot for best ever? And if he doesn't, who cares? He's still an all-time legend.

Kevin Love

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    Kevin Love altered his legacy by guarding Stephen Curry late in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
    Kevin Love altered his legacy by guarding Stephen Curry late in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Vilified for: Third-wheel syndrome

    Winning heals most wounds, so Kevin Love may be saved from further derision. 

    Rewind back to June, and many onlookers thought the Cavs were better off without Love. When he sat out Game 3 of the NBA Finals, they beat the Warriors by 30. When he only logged 12 minutes in Game 6, they posted 115 points.

    Then the big man snagged 14 boards in Game 7 and contained Stephen Curry during a crucial late possession. Will that moment eradicate all memories of Cleveland fans starting a GoFundMe campaign to pay Love not to play Game 6?

    Imagine not even wanting a three-time All-Star who averages a career double-double (18.3 points, 11.5 rebounds per game) on the court for an elimination Finals game. That's what happens when a star used to posting big numbers on a bad team becomes the third option (on a good day) for a title contender.

    Chris Bosh suffered the same curse as the Miami Heat's third wheel behind James and Dwyane Wade. Although a vocal part of their Eastern Conference dominance, he no longer dropped 20 points or corralled double-digit boards.

    Love deserves more criticism than Bosh for his waning scoring efficiency and lacking defense. Yet the mob remains in danger of taking the hate too far, calling him a bad player because they realized he was never a true superstar.

Cam Newton

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    Cam Newton has received criticism for expressing too much joy and not enough joy.
    Cam Newton has received criticism for expressing too much joy and not enough joy.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Vilified for: Smiling, enjoying himself

    Who can forget the concerned mother sending a letter to the Charlotte Observer after a jarring incident at a Carolina Panthers and Tennessee Titans football game?

    "Because of where we sat, we had a close up view of your conduct in the fourth quarter," Titans fan Rosemary Plorin wrote. "The chest puffs. The pelvic thrusts. The arrogant struts and the ‘in your face’ taunting of both the Titans players and fans. We saw it all."

    Wow, she really dislikes cheerleaders setting a poor example for her daughter. Wait, she was talking about Cam Newton celebrating touchdowns by smiling and dancing. Saving her daughter from this dubious display of dabbing, the mother "redirected her attention to the cheerleaders and mascot" so the young girl could instead watch scantily clad women dance.

    When Newton expressed joy during joyful moments, that was bad. When he did not express joy hours after losing the Super Bowl, that was also bad. Everyone from Jim Rome to Rob Lowe questioned his leadership skills after walking out of the postgame press conference.

    Newton should have handled the situation better, but it's a normal reaction for a 26-year-old getting questioned about falling short in the biggest game of his life. Making matters worse, he could hear Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. brag about their game plan to make Carolina throw the ball

    Let's instead enjoy one the NFL's most exciting superstars.

Roman Reigns

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    WWE's Roman Reigns gets heavily booed despite working as a face.
    WWE's Roman Reigns gets heavily booed despite working as a face.Ron Elkman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

    Vilified for: Being the hand-chosen guy

    WWE has an edge over unscripted sports in that it decides who plays the heroes and villains. Or maybe not, because whomever the wrestling promotion backs as the top good guy gets booed the most.

    John Cena faced this dilemma for years, but public perception has finally shifted. Fans tired of Cena the character have grown to appreciate him as a wrestler and person. Perhaps more importantly, they have moved on to hating Roman Reigns instead.

    When he won the Royal Rumble in 2015, an intended triumphant moment drew intense scorn from the Philadelphia crowd. The same thing happened when he defeated Triple H in the main event of WrestleMania 32, the company's biggest showcase of the year. 

    Little of this is his fault. He can't help Vince McMahon pushing him to the top because of his size, strength and look. For all the "You can't wrestle" chants, Reigns has worked plenty of good matches, most notably with AJ Styles, now a beloved heel because of his wrestling excellence. 

    It's also not his fault the company stubbornly will not alter its vision for Reigns replacing Cena as WWE's star face. If this makes sense, Reigns is supposed to be playing a good guy but instead acts like a jerk despite WWE thinking he's behaving as a crowd-pleasing face. 

    Accept that his character isn't a lovable underdog, and he'd flourish so much as a heel that it'd quickly become cool to cheer for him again. Styles, Seth Rollins and Kevin Owens are undoubtedly more experienced between the ropes, but fans have made up their minds to mercilessly boo Reigns regardless of what he does.

    Even when he wins fans over by the end of a match, everyone jeers him the next night. Because that's supposedly the cool thing to do.

Alex Rodriguez

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    Alex Rodriguez has become an easy target for scorn.
    Alex Rodriguez has become an easy target for scorn.Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    Vilified for: performance-enhancing drugs use, perceived arrogance, not being Derek Jeter

    For all his flaws, Alex Rodriguez deserved better.

    Yes, the polarizing slugger admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. He also kissed his reflection and slapped a baseball out of a pitcher's glove to avoid getting tagged.

    He's an easy target. Putting aside the unknown affects of PEDs use, he's also one of the greatest baseball players ever.

    Before getting unceremoniously kicked out the door by the New York Yankees, Rodriguez was four home runs shy of joining Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth in the 700 club. He ranks No. 13 in FanGraphs' all-time WAR (113.0) between Yankees legends Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle.

    For the record, Derek Jeter retired with 436 fewer home runs and 71.8 WAR. But he's the revered legend who received a season-long retirement tour while tallying a .617 OPS for the same team who couldn't bother to play Rodriguez a full week.

    He served as a punchline in The Other Guys and Trainwreck. The joke in both: Everyone hates A-Rod. 

    Happy to oblige and make Rodriguez the villain, MLB singled him out with a 211-game suspension reduced to 162 games. Jose Reyes, who was charged with abuse of his wife, received a more lenient punishment.

    Rodriguez broke the rules and then lied about it. He's no hero. But it's time to put the A-Fraud shtick to rest.

Tony Romo

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    The public believes Tony Romo's job is in jeopardy after the Dallas Cowboys improved to 2-12 without him since 2015.
    The public believes Tony Romo's job is in jeopardy after the Dallas Cowboys improved to 2-12 without him since 2015.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Vilified for: Anecdotal confirmation bias about his late-game performance

    After their 27-23 win over Washington in Week 2, ESPN's First Take ran a Twitter poll asking who the Dallas Cowboys should start at quarterback when Tony Romo returns. Because people irrationally hate Tony Romo and love blowing recent results out of proportion, 66 percent selected Dak Prescott. 

    Through two games, the rookie completed 62.3 percent of his passes with 6.92 yards per pass attempt. Get that Canton bust ready. Romo, meanwhile, has only completed 65.3 percent of his passes with 7.89 yards per attempt over a grossly underrated decade under center.

    By the way, both of those rates are higher than Tom Brady. As is his 97.1 quarterback rating. On the heels of their latest triumph, the Cowboys are 2-12 without Romo since last year. 

    If anybody sincerely asks if the New England Patriots should keep starting Jimmy Garoppolo when Brady returns, he or she is rightly deemed foolish. In Dallas, this has become an actual conflict people pretend exists for drama and ratings.

    Why has Romo become a popular target for derision? His inconsistencies, mostly earlier in his career, have created a false narrative of him always blowing games in the fourth quarter. In actuality, there's no substances to these claims. 

    Per Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Cowboys quarterback has led 25 fourth-quarter rallies, fifth among all active passers behind Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees. He wields a 102.7 quarterback rating over the final period.

    He's not perfect, and whether fair or not, he'll never get revered like those four names above without a ring. Yet it's a shame to see one of the game's top passers treated cruelly throughout his entire career.

Serena Williams

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    Serena Williams has faced sexism and racism throughout his illustrious career.
    Serena Williams has faced sexism and racism throughout his illustrious career.TIMOTHY A. CLARY/Getty Images

    Vilified for: Being a woman in sports

    Unfortunately, every female athlete probably qualifies because of sexist Twitter trolls. 

    Serena Williams is the most prominent woman in sports today. The tennis star is also a vocal supporter of women receiving equal pay and boycotted the Indian Wells because of racial slurs directed at her and her sister, Venus, in 2001.

    She's not afraid to challenge injustices, which will cause egg-avatared sexists and racists to take aim. Novelist J.K Rowling can't silence them all.

    Per USA Today's Nick McCarvel, Williams prefers Snapchat to avoid unpleasant remarks on other social media apps.

    “I don't have to deal with the really mean trolls out there and the comments," Williams said. “I don't read comments, but then there is always some that kind of pop up. I don't have to be judged, at least, you know, on Snapchat. I don't have to be judged about whatever.”

    Although Williams recently lost her long-reigning No. 1 world ranking, she's still a 22-time Grand Slam champion, tied for Steffi Graf for most from any competitor in the Open era. In a poignant ad, Nike removed "female" from the common "greatest female athlete ever" label.