— In the past week, I’ve read a number of online tributes and printed opinion pieces memorializing the late Macho Man Randy Savage, the most entertaining professional wrestler turned Slim Jim salesman we’ll ever see. Not only was Savage, who died in a car accident on May 20, an essential part of the mid-1980s rise of the WWF, he also rattled the world of elbow drops and scripted drama with his unforgettable transitions from heel to hero, from hero back to heel.
During his 32-year career, Savage backstabbed his way around the turnbuckles, clashing with everyone from Hulk Hogan to Ric Flair. What Savage perfected isn’t unique in professional wrestling; WWE CEO Vince McMahon couldn’t afford his oversized suits if his characters didn’t change allegiances more than they change their tights.
But those hero-to-villain costume swaps rarely happen in other sports, the kinds without predetermined outcomes and pre-fab storylines. Or it didn’t until LeBron James and his gingham shirt sat across from Jim Gray for an hour last summer. What we really heard during that now-infamous ESPN special was the sound of James smacking the city of Cleveland with a folding chair.
Our heroes — our teams — need villains to complete the story, to make it more intriguing, to make it more unpredictable. Without villains, Rocky is that weirdo who loiters in the meat locker, Batman’s an angry orphan with a latex fetish and Tom Brady is … well, he’s the guy who tucked over the Raiders.
Ever since “The Decision”, since he boxed up his talents and shipped them to South Beach, since that Heat-sponsored ‘Welcome Party’ that looked like a particularly obnoxious episode of My Super Sweet 16, James has been one of sports’ most polarizing figures. No one has switched sides of the villain spectrum — from loved to loathed, from adored to A-Rod — faster than James.
James is difficult to categorize as a sports villain. The regionalized hatred radiating from Middle America was expected; fan bases rarely forgive the guys who break their hearts, end their seasons, or otherwise hurt their teams. Ask Red Sox fans about Bucky Dent or Aaron Boone, who share the same Massachusetts-only middle name. Or drop an Adam Graves reference into an otherwise polite conversation in Pittsburgh. Or remind Oakland about Tom Brady, the guy who, um, tucked the Raiders out of the 2001 playoffs.
Most sports villains, the ones that are more universally despised regardless of the area code or what color jersey the home team wears, fit into a handful of categories, whether it’s because they tried to inject their way toward immortality, they frequently suckerpunch the idea of sportsmanship, or they’re more irritating than Snooki belting out a Ke$ha song.
Let’s start with The Cheaters.
In the past decade, baseball has stacked this category more than any other sport without spandex shorts and aerodynamic helmets. One of our more recent unlikeable athletes was Barry Bonds, who didn’t do baseball any favors when he set any of his bat-related records or broke Hank Aaron's all-time home run mark. Even if you ignored his BALCO frequent shopper card, Bonds was difficult to endure. On his best days, he was arrogant and aloof; on his worst, he had the warmth of an undermedicated Greg House but had even more pharmaceuticals cruising through his system. Thanks to Bonds (and his partners in PEDs), the next generation of baseball’s record books will come with a lengthy forward and an appendix made entirely of asterisks.
Dishonorable Mention: Floyd Landis, Marion Jones, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Any Player Who Had to Respond to a Subpoena, Manny Ramirez, Any Player Who Should’ve Been Subpoenaed, and Roger Clemens, who should be ashamed both because his name appeared 82 times in the Mitchell Report and because he had frosted blonde highlights during one of his court appearances.
The Dirty Players and Cheap Shot Specialists: This group is led by former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski, who must have worn a checklist of filthy-ass plays on one of his steroid-swollen wrists. Punching Tony Gonzalez? Check. Spitting on J.J. Stokes? Check. Breaking Kerry Collins’ jaw? Check. Kicking Larry Centers in the head? Check. Cold cocking a second-string teammate, crunching his eyesocket and ending the guy’s shot at a career? Triple check. Saying Bill Romanowski was your favorite player is like saying that smallpox was your favorite character in The Velveteen Rabbit.
Dishonorable Mention: Todd Bertuzzi, Ulf Samuelsson, Bill Laimbeer, that crazy-eyed Alabama fan who poisoned Auburn’s oak trees, Tonya Harding and Jack Tatum.
The Pests, Jerks and Other Assorted Attitude Problems: These may be the most infuriating of all the villains because most of the time what they do is within the rules, unless their douchetastic behavior leads to an actual rule change and yes, I’m staring into your beady little eyes, Sean Avery. The Rangers left wing is the NHL’s most consistent — and insistent — agitator, who spews so much BS during his shifts on the ice, his postgame meal should be something double ply and extra-absorbent.
Dishonorable Mention: Terrell Owens, Terrell Owens’ TD Celebrations, Terrell Owens’ Willingness to Wear Sunglasses Indoors, Gary Sheffield, Kurt Busch and AJ Pierzynski.
The Duke Blue Devils: Somehow this undersized research university nestled safely in the North Carolina piedmont has amassed an impressive collection of Easy to Despise college basketball players. I’m unsure how this happens, but I like to think that at the beginning of every season, Mike Krzyzewski inserts a weathered dollar bill into some kind of Vending Machine of Awful, mashes the A-6 button and then collects Christian Laettner, JJ Redick, Greg Paulus or either of the two Plumlee brothers from the slot below. (If he hits any other button, he gets a Crystal Pepsi).
All-Time Terrible People: I nominate Ty Cobb. Just Ty Cobb. Fifty years after his death — and 83 after he hung up his sharpened spikes for the last time — Cobb still holds a couple of baseball records. He’s also collected a long list of unflattering adjectives, from “racist” to “violent”. Saying Cobb was an unpleasant person is like saying Freddy Krueger had combination skin.
Last week, Tampa Bay Lightning fans backchecked in their pants after Boston’s Nate Horton threw a water bottle at a fan. They should’ve seen Cobb go into the stands after a heckler. A heckler who had no hands. When another ticketholder pointed that out to Cobb, he responded "I don’t care if he has no feet.”
Picking — and despising — an athlete-turned-villain, anyone on the list from Sean Avery to Zinedine Zidane, is as much a part of being a fan as owning a diseased-looking lucky hat or calculating batting stats, Rain Man-style, while you sit in Monday morning traffic. Sports are one of the only parts of life where the irrational is accepted as the norm, whether it’s believing your team could erase an 0-3 playoff deficit or the idea that sitting on the left side of the sofa will keep Dirk’s hot streak going.
It’s ridiculous to reach mouth-frothing levels of hatred for a total stranger, for someone who makes a business decision, a game-changing or season-ending play, or does something else during the course of his day job that doesn’t affect you personally. But it does. It shouldn’t bother you, but it will. It’s irrational, but it makes sense. It’s sports.
Do we rely on A-Rod and the Yankees, LeBron and the Heat to enrich the game by enraging us in the process? To borrow a catch phrase from the late Randy Savage, “Ohhhh yeahhhhh.”