Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Forbes Magazine’s Most Disliked Athletes: Commonalities and Perceptions

Fairly often (about every 6 months it seems), Forbes Magazine will publish a list of America’s most liked and/or most disliked athletes (which seems useful enough when gauging a certain player's marketability). Inclusion on the positive list usually corresponds to on-field heroics (with the glaring exception of “Tebowmania,” which I was tempted to write about dozens of times over the past few months but refrained from doing for fear of being too cynical) and a working class, good ol’ boy, everyman persona: Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, Blake Griffin, etc. Even this year’s Super Bowl QBs miss the cut, despite their obvious competitive prowess: MVP Eli Manning is “too sad puppy,” “aw shucks” and not charismatic enough, while his ├╝bercool counterpart Tom Brady has a “European hairstyle” (I wish I was making that one up), a haughty supermodel wife and endorses UGGs. But, while these won't win over fans, they are only minor sins; what misdeeds land you on the Nielsen Ratings naughty list?

A big difference I notice between the world of sports and that of literature, especially today, is the former’s lack of tolerance with the flawed hero. Judging from the Forbes lists, it would seem that Lou Gehrig would have much more universal appeal today than would Babe Ruth. We are certainly, as a society, more Larry Bird than Magic Johnson. Visiting my favorite rugby bar (Springbok in LA) for last fall’s IRB World Cup, I noticed that among rugby enthusiasts, the panache of France’s champagne rugby earns them the back seat when compared to technicians of the game like New Zealand or Wales. Hard work trumps flair - and a look at the list confirms this.

Without further ado, here is today’s bottom ten (followed by the despicability factor/pct.): Michael Vick (60), Tiger Woods (60), Plaxico Burress (56), Ndamukong Suh (51), Kris Humphries (50), LeBron James (48), Kobe Bryant (45), Terrell Owens (45), Alex Rodriguez (44) and Kurt Busch (42)

What drives Americans to hate star athletes? A couple of trends emerge almost immediately: 1) Past legal issues, 2) Marital infidelity (and/or being daft enough to marry/date a Kardashian or Madonna), 3) Cheating or a reputation of dirty play (i.e. stomping you opponents chest after the whistle on Thanksgiving Day) and 4) Being a locker-room scourge and/or turning on your team. [The other guy is a NASCAR driver… so, who cares?] Fact is this: we expect our athletes to be role models and to adhere to a Middle America/Christian code of ethics. One is expected to obey the law, honor spouse/fellow man and be a good team player. In short, we are willing to ignore multi-million dollar salaries, unnatural physiques (minus, of course, the driver) and the explicit violence of sport in order to fuel our illusion that our favorite athletes are “just like us.” Dare to deviate from that perception and - despite humiliation, contrition, amends or hard time served - the court of public opinion may never forgive you.