25 Athletes We Love to Hate
The life of an athlete, especially a professional one, is not all lollipops and rainbows. The amount of money being generated in today’s sports economy makes it possible for even an average player to set himself and his family up for life, but that financial security comes at a price.
Aside from the normal scrutiny that comes with being hated by fans of rival teams and having their every misstep—whether on or off the field—covered on SportsCenter, the advent of blogging and social media makes it easy for anyone to voice an opinion that can be read by millions.
However, even that cost is not high enough for a select few athletes, who for various reasons have emerged as the epitome of all that is wrong with professional sports in the minds of millions of fans, despite generally being recognized as some of the top performers in their game of choice.
If there’s truth in Machiavelli’s belief that it is better to be respected than loved, then these 25 athletes better hope that they have plenty of respect because the love is hard to come by.
25. Alexander Ovechkin
Alexander Ovechkin is widely considered one of the top players in the NHL. As recently as two seasons ago, the league was generating a mountain of publicity off of the Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby rivalry that was certain to fuel the sport for years to come, with the Washington Capitals left wing playing the Lex Luthor to the Pittsbugh Penguins center’s Superman.
Ovechkin has regressed as an offensive force in each of the last two seasons, and he’s also gained a reputation for being a dirty player—a belief that was reinforced with his questionable hit on New York Rangers Dan Girardi during the 2012 NHL Playoffs.
He may have earned some respect from a few hockey fans by publicly supporting his reduced ice time during the playoffs, but that certainly wasn’t enough to curb his bad boy image, both on and off the ice.
24. Ben Roethlisberger
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been called many things, but humble is not one of them.
Despite leading the franchise to two Super Bowl titles—and a third appearance—in his nine-year career, Roethlisberger was not considered a team leader. And he had a questionable image off the field, highlighted by a 2010 incident in which he was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a night club, the third such incident he was involved in since 2008.
Although he was once again absolved of any legal recourse, even die-hard Steelers fans found it hard to support their QB’s tiring act. The notoriously image-conscious Rooney family (owners of the Steelers franchise) received a lot of pressure to get rid of him, despite being in the prime of a Canton-bound career.
The fallout from the 2010 case seemed to finally lead Roethlisberger to clean up his act. But that hasn’t stopped him from being one of the NFL’s most despised players, which is saying a lot in a league full of miscreants.
23. Phil Mickelson
Despite the fact that he’s long since shed his label as the best golfer to never win a major, Mickelson has done little to lose his image as one of the PGA’s phoniest, most temperamental players.
His on-the-course stubbornness, which has likely cost him another major championship or two, is comical, but his reputation as a diva is anything but.
In the latest example of Phil’s prima donna behavior, he withdrew from this year’s Memorial Golf Tournament after an opening-round 79, citing mental fatigue.
Not a big deal, you say? It is when you’re coming fresh off a European vacation to celebrate your wife’s 40th birthday.
22. Albert Haynesworth
We often use the term “stealing money” to describe an athlete who is not performing at a level representative of his contract. Albert Haynesworth’s play since signing a seven-year $100 million contract with the Washington Redskins prior to the 2009 season leaves the impression that he is taking the saying literally.
Once considered the most dominant interior defensive lineman in the NFL during his time with the Tennessee Titans, Haynesworth essentially quit on his team once he joined Washington, claiming he wasn’t happy with the team’s switch to a 3-4 defense under new head coach Mike Shanahan.
21. Raffi Torres
Phoenix Coyotes defenseman Raffi Torres is quickly developing a reputation as the NHL’s dirtiest player.
Despite being a repeat offender of the league’s policy on illegal checks, Torres outdid himself in Phoenix’s first-round playoff series versus the Chicago Blackhawks with this vicious shot to the head against Marian Hossa—one that could have cost Hossa his career.
The NHL apparently thought so little of Torres’ actions that they suspended him for 25 games, enough to cost him the remainder of the Coyotes’ playoff run and nearly 20 percent of the 2012-2013 NHL season.
20. Brett Favre
If you want to know how to burn through an entire career of good will in just three short years, be sure to follow the Brett Favre playbook.
Favre could possibly be forgiven for not exactly embracing the role of a mentor when the Green Bay Packers drafter Aaron Rodgers to be his successor with the 24th pick of the 2005 NFL draft. Many Green Bay fans even sided with him when he was traded to the New York Jets prior to the 2008 season.
Favre began to dig his own grave with the "maybe I’ll retire, just kidding I won't" routine. He finally creeped out many fans with the Jen Sterger cell phone pic controversy, in which a former Jets employee accused him of sending inappropriate photos of himself to her via text message.
19. J.R. Smith
When people complain about the NBA being full of rich, spoiled, self-centered athletes, they usually point to J.R. Smith as Exhibits A, B and C.
The uber-talented guard has as much skill and athleticism as any player in the league and could easily be the NBA’s top sixth man. Unfortunately, Smith has been involved in countless incidents, both on and off the court, that point to an incredible lack of maturity.
His latest incident included a Twitter war with his followers in which Smith threatened to opt out of the final year of his contract if the New York fans didn’t appreciate him. Their response? How fast can you pack?
18. Randy Moss
Fans will forgive all sorts of off-the-field transgressions from their favorite athletes, especially ones with hall of fame skills like Randy Moss. What they will not accept, however, is a lack of effort.
Moss came into the NFL with questions about his character that caused a player with No. 1 pick talent to drop to the Minnesota Vikings with the 21st pick of the 1998 draft. He never really matured off the field, but Moss delivered enough Pro Bowl seasons and highlight-reel catches for most fans to turn the other way when he mooned the crowd at Lambeau, hit a cop with his car after a traffic stop, or walked off the field before the end of a tough loss.
He forever etched his name into the hated athlete hall of fame when he sabotaged not, one, not two, but three teams during the 2010 season in reaction to being unhappy about his contract status. Needless to say he won’t find many friends in New England, Minnesota, or Tennessee.
After a year off, Moss has resurfaced with the offensively-challenged 49ers in a last-ditch effort to revive his career. The Bay Area is notoriously forgiving of it’s flawed stars (see Barry Bonds), so perhaps he’ll leave his heart in San Francisco.
17. Dwight Howard
If Brett Favre’s goodwill-killing plan is the equivalent of changing your diet and going to the gym to lose weight, Dwight Howard’s approach is like taking Hydroxycut.
The NBA’s best center in less than one full season managed to go from lovable big man to the poster child for petulant, spoiled superstars, making LeBron James’ decision look like a textbook approach to handling free agency.
Howard so poorly handled the possibility of becoming a free agent this summer that he got his coach and general manager fired, and Orlando still doesn’t know whether he’ll be around beyond next season.
It’s entirely possible, if not highly likely, that the drama that unfolded prior to this past season’s NBA trade deadline will play itself out again as the 2012-2013 season approaches. With LeBron James finally adding the title of NBA Champion to his resume, the spotlight is squarely on Howard to prove he’s worth the trouble.
16. Chad Ochocinco
The wide receiver formally know and Chad Johnson has long been one of the NFL’s most polarizing figures.
During the height of his career with the Cincinnati Bengals, Ochocinco made as many highlights for his colorful touchdown celebrations as he did for the plays that got him into the end zone in the first place.
Though Ochocinco appeared to be a model citizen during his one season with the New England Patriots, his lack of production (only 15 catches for 276 yards and one touchdown) was overshadowed by his ever-growing presence on Twitter, which many football fans interpreted as a lack of dedication to his profession.
Ochocinco is getting a shot a redemption with the Dolphins this season after signing a one-year deal to play in his native Miami, a town more suited for his theatrics and showman-like ways.
15. Tony Romo
In a country affectionately referred to as the land of opportunity, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo should be a model of what hard work will get you. Instead, he’s become perhaps the most maligned star QB in the NFL.
Romo once received praise as an undrafted player out of Northern Illinois who played well enough to impress none other than Bill Parcells, eventually taking over as the signal-caller for America’s Team. But his fairytale quickly turned into a nightmare, as the franchise’s Super Bowl drought continued.
Once Romo’s profile in the league—and in the tabloids—began to grow, and the playoff losses continued to add up, he quickly went from a feel-good story to a lightning rod for criticism, as people started to question whether he was truly dedicated to becoming a championship-caliber quarterback.
Though Romo had his best season as a pro in 2011, the team failures continued, providing even more ammo for America’s favorite NFL team to hate.
14. Jerry Jones
OK, so Jerry Jones is not technically an athlete, at least not anymore (he did play college football at the University of Arkansas, so he gets a pass). But the Dallas Cowboys owner shines above them all when it comes to being the most hated team figure.
Like Romo, there was a point in time where you could look at Jones' rags-to-ruches story as a source of inspiration. But he wasted little time drawing the ire of many Cowboys fans when he fired legendary coach Tom Landry shortly after purchasing the team in 1989.
All was forgiven when the Cowboys won three Super Bowls in the early 90s, but then Jones fired the architect of that dynasty—and his former college teammate, Jimmy Johnson—and has failed to bring a winner to Dallas since.
The Super Bowl drought is made worse by the fact that he refuses to hire a real general manager to handle football operations, insisting that nobody knows better than he (and his son Stephen) what it takes to build a winner.
Lest you think it’s just Cowboys fans who have grown to hate their owner, Jones has drawn the ire of other fans and even many of his fellow league owners, as he has often gone against the grain on league-wide decisions, instead choosing to do what’s in the best interest of his club, not necessarily the NFL as a whole.
13. Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch is the reigning king of controversy on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, and has been for quite some time. His childish antics and hotheaded ways have gotten him into trouble with other drivers and NASCAR officials for years, which is a shame because his tired act overshadows the fact that he’s a really good driver.
2012 has been more of the same for Busch, as he continues to draw attention for all the wrong reasons. He was already on probation for a May 12 incident involving a run-in with the crew of fellow driver Ryan Newman. He was then suspended for the June 5 race at Pocono for a confrontation with a reporter from The Sporting News, and his probation has been extended through the end of the season.
Busch currently has a tenuous hold on the 12th spot in the Cup standings, so it’ll be interesting to see which he has a harder time controlling throughout the rest of 2012—the last spot in the race for the cup or his temper.
12. Ndamukong Suh
Yet another athlete on this list who’s quickly gone from admired to despised, Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh has fast become the NFL’s latest bad boy, fitting considering the city he calls home.
Suh entered the NFL as one of the greatest defensive line prospects in years after a standout career at the University of Nebraska. His superior athleticism, endless motor and thoughtful engagement with the media made him an instant favorite among Lions fans and those who cover the sport on a regular basis.
Suh’s fearless attitude has been a big part of the culture change in Detroit that helped lead the Lions to their first playoff birth since 1999, but he’s also received several fines over the past couple of season for questionable late hits.
Many of those could have been considered borderline calls, but he clearly crossed a line this past Thanksgiving when he appeared to stomp on a Green Bay Packers offensive lineman during a nationally televised game, an act that earned him a two-game suspension and cemented his reputation as the NFL’s dirtiest player.
11. Kris Humphries
Brooklyn Nets power forward Kris Humphries has probably done the least to deserve his spot on this list, but that hasn’t prevented him from being one of the NBA’s most hated athletes.
So what exactly did he do to deserve so much ridicule, to the point where he was vehemently booed in Madison Square Garden during his first game of the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season? Apparently, his only crime was marrying and then promptly divorcing reality TV star—and the future Mrs. Kanye West—Kim Kardashian in a famously disastrous union that lasted just 72 days.
While making a mockery of marriage is certainly not something to be taken lightly, the NBA is full of more famous players who’ve done far worse.
10. Tim Tebow
Tim Tebow is easily the most polarizing athlete in the NFL and possibly all of professional sports. It’s hard to remember a player who, as far as we can tell, does and says all the right things and yet is despised by almost as many fans as he is beloved by others.
Sure, Tebow’s squeaky clean image and constant proclamations about his faith can be off-putting, especially in a country that is becoming increasingly more secular, but that’s hardly a reason to hate him.
I imagine that most football fans would tell you that it’s his over exposure, compared to his limited talent as a pro quarterback, that really drives them nuts. If that’s the case, the problem isn’t going away anytime soon now that Tebow is a member of the already polarizing New York Jets.
9. Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant happens to be my favorite NBA player (why is another column for another day), but I understand the many reasons why people hate him.
He’s a Michael Jordan wannabe. He plays for the Los Angeles Lakers. He sold Shaq out. He disrespected the NBA’s established stars during his first All-Star appearance. He quit on his team in the playoffs against Phoenix.
He’s a front-runner who demanded a trade the first time the team wasn’t winning. He berated a young Andrew Bynum on film. He clashed with Phil Jackson and questioned Mitch Kupchak’s competency as a general manager.
Shall I go on?
All of that makes it difficult enough to defend the Black Mamba, and most of these events occurred after the infamous Colorado rape case.
8. Alex Rodriguez
Before LeBron James became the best professional athlete in the four major U.S. leagues to not have a championship, Alex Rodriguez was that guy.
Like James, Rodriguez was the No. 1 overall pick right out of high school, and he, too, wasted little time making his presence felt, winning a batting title at 21 years old during his first full season in the majors.
He and Ken Griffey, Jr. formed a dynamic duo in Seattle, but his sterling image began to take a hit when he left the Pacific Northwest after the 2000 season to accept a then-record 10-year, $252 million contract to play for the Texas Rangers.
A-Rod put up big numbers in Texas and in New York, where he was traded to the Yankees before the start of the 2004 season. But those numbers failed to translate into World Championships, and he quickly became the game's biggest villain (sound familiar?).
Although he finally won over the hearts of Yankees fans by helping to lead them to a 2009 World Series victory, a checkered dating history, a myriad of social gaffes and his 2010 admission of past performing enhancing drug use have continued to make him public enemy No. 1 in the eyes of many baseball fans.
7. Roger Clemens
Roger Clemens always played with a bit of an edge, so it’s not that surprising that he would pop up on this list, even without the steroids accusations.
Clemens had a standout, 13-year career with the Boston Red Sox that included three American League Cy Young awards. But the marriage ended unceremoniously when a stretch of three subpar seasons in his last four with the team led the Boston brass to believe that his days as an elite pitcher were behind him.
Clemens proved them wrong by signing with the AL East rival Toronto Blue Jays, where he went on to win back-to-back Cy Young awards in ’97 and ’98. He then further drew the ire of Red Sox Nation by playing six seasons with the hated New York Yankees, including a Word Championship season in 2000.
Apparently not satisfied with pissing off all of New England, Clemens became the subject of national ridicule when he was accused by former trainer Brian McNamee of taking performance enhancing drugs.
Although Clemens was recently acquitted on all six charges of lying to Congress about his PED usage, the court of public opinion has rendered him guilty, making him one of the poster boys for the infamous steroids era that ruled baseball through the '90s and early 2000s.
6. Terrell Owens
If there’s a Ten Commandments for team sports, “Don’t throw your teammates under the bus” has to be towards the top of the list, either right before or right after “Always give your best effort.”
Terrell Owens has never had an issue with the latter, but the former has been a constant source of trouble for the controversial wide receiver, dating back to his days with the San Francisco 49ers.
From Jeff Garcia to Donovan McNabb to Tony Romo, Owens has clashed with just about every NFL quarterback he’s ever played with, eventually leading to his departure from all three teams.
It’s a shame that a player who set such a shining example on the field has been such a team cancer off of it, even burning his bridges during his abbreviated stint with the Allen Wranglers of the Indoor Football League.
While Randy Moss had no problem finding a new home after a year away from the game, Owens’ antics appear to have left him in a position where it is unlikely that he will get another shot in the NFL, a sad end to a Hall of Fame career.
5. Barry Bonds
Like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds was less than popular well before the BALCO scandal threatened his Hall of Fame candidacy. He is famously surly, ungracious to fans and media members alike and reportedly a horrible teammate, as evidenced by a locker room fight with fellow San Francisco Giant Jeff Kent in 2002.
Now the MLB single-season (73) and career (762) home run king of MLB, Bonds is the single most despised player of the steroids era, although he too largely beat the government’s case against him, after being found guilty of the minor charge of obstruction of justice for which he received no jail time.
Though he dodged the biggest legal bullets aimed at him, Bonds was further exposed as a rotten individual after his former mistress, Kimberly Bell, gave damning testimony about him during the 2011 trial.
As Bonds reportedly tries to work his way back into the game of baseball as a hitting instructor, it’ll be interesting to see if he begins to show any of the humility that St. Louis Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire showed as he worked his way back into the game after admitting to using PEDs during his career.
4. Floyd Mayweather, Jr.
Floyd “Money” Mayweather, Jr. may be the greatest pound-for-pound boxer the sport has ever seen. Unfortunately for boxing fans, we may never get the true answer to that question due to his refusal to fight fellow “best ever” contender Manny Pacquiao.
You’d think that Mayweather, Jr.’s arrogant and abrasive nature—not to mention his repeated legal trouble, which currently finds him serving a 90-day jail sentence for assaulting his ex-girlfriend—would be the biggest reason to dislike him.
In fact, the ducking and dodging that both he and Pacquiao have done for more than two years (the blame for failing to make the “fight of the century” happen varies largely based on which fighter you support) is the main reason why most fans have been frustrated by his ability to duck his only real competition.
Pacquiao’s recent “loss”—if you want to call it that—to Timothy Bradley takes a little bit of the shine off of a potential 2013 fight versus Mayweather. Regardless, “Money” will go a long way towards regaining the respect of the boxing community if he finally agrees to what most believe to be the most lucrative boxing purse in history.
3. Tiger Woods
There was a time, pre-November 2009, when the Tiger vs. Phil argument was strictly about golf. After the car accident that eventually led to the unveiling of Woods’ rampant infidelity, the conversation has become about a lot more than that, and Team Tiger is suddenly a lot smaller than it used to be.
Tiger went to great lengths to portray the same family man persona that has become a key part of the Mickelson mystique. But as the details surrounding his cheating became more shocking and the number of potential mistresses grew into the mid-teens, it became impossible for Woods to keep up the façade, eventually leading to his divorce from wife Elin Nordegren.
If the personal tragedy were not enough, Woods has also fallen from grace on the golf course, no longer a dominant force that hovers like a pending storm cloud over the rest of the sport. He’s still the biggest draw on tour, but his struggle to regain his once legendary form has been a source of satisfaction for his growing legion of detractors.
If winning and time can heal all wounds, Woods needs to start doing a lot more of the former, because at 36, he’s running out of the latter if he wants a realistic shot at passing Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships.
2. LeBron James
You thought finally winning his first NBA title was going to quiet the haters a bit? Not in the least. LeBron James is still the poster child for how irrational fan behavior infects the world of professional sports, and no number of rings is going to change that.
As far as we know, LeBron James' only crimes are holding an ill-advised, nationally televised press conference to announce his “decision” to leave his “hometown” Cleveland Cavaliers (let’s not forget he’s from Akron, people) for the glitz and glamour of South Beach, and then staging an over-the-top welcoming party to announce that he would win not one, not two, not three…ah you get the point.
By leading the Miami Heat to the 2012 NBA Title, James has officially begun his ascent towards the G.O.A.T. title currently held by Michael Jordan. But when 48 of the 50 states, as identified by a pre-finals ESPN SportsNation poll, are cheering against you to win championship No. 1, it’s clear that winning over the hearts of the detractors will be just as difficult as reaching the pinnacle occupied by His Airness.
1. Michael Vick
There were probably a lot of NFL fans who didn’t care too much for Michael Vick before he plead guilty to charges of animal cruelty in November of 2008, charges that came as a result of his involvement with a dog fighting ring that was run out of his Surry County, VA, property and led to the brutal killing of some of the animals.
Although always an extremely gifted talent and an electric player to watch on Sundays, many fans, coaches and teammates were frustrated by Vick’s lack of commitment to practice and film study, signs that he was not taking his responsibility as the franchise leader seriously.
Many felt that he took advantage of the generosity of Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blanks, who reportedly was so fond of Vick that he ignored many complaints about Vick’s behavior from people inside the organization.
Since serving an 18-month prison sentence for his conviction and being suspended from the NFL indefinitely by commissioner Roger Goodell, Vick has turned his life around, appearing sincere in his regret and quietly working his way back to NFL stardom as the starting quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Many people have accepted the fact that Vick has paid his debt to society and allowed him to peacefully go about the business of repairing his life and his career. But ultimately, forgiveness will never come from many who view crimes against animals, especially dogs, as more severe the crimes against other humans.
For that, Michael Vick will forever be America’s most hated professional athlete, at least until the next great villain arrives to take his place.