When it comes to marketing a sport one universal truth is that villains capture people’s attention. Regardless of their propensity to cross the line every sports fan is captivated by those particular players that we just love to hate. What makes a true villain though? Sports is filled with goons and dirty players, but a real villain is more than that. A villain has skill. They’re the players that rub you the wrong way, then go out and have an amazing performance against your team. For all the trash talking and dirty play, they can actually back it up, making you hate them even more. The truly great villains also seem to have an unbelievable clutch factor. They seem to rise to the occasion at the biggest possible moment and break the hearts of opposing fans in the cruelest of fashion.
I’ve decided to put together a list of a few notorious villains from across the four major North American Sports. For all the hate these guys got, they were all, must see players.
Football: James Harrison
Over the years James Harrison has been a magnet for controversy both on and off the football field. Whether he’s crossing the line in an interview or making a dirty play he certainly draws a lot of attention to himself. Harrison is considered by both fans and his pears as arguably the dirtiest player in football. He has been involved in a number of incidents in which he has injured other players with dirty plays. He also famously trashed the commissioner of the NFL and even his own teammates in an interview with Men’s Journal a few years ago. Despite the controversy though James Harrison can flat out play. He may be past his prime now, but was undoubtedly one of the best linebackers of his generation. He has controversy and the talent, and he also has that last special ingredient of any great villain. James Harrison is an unbelievably clutch player. There are a number of moments you can point to, but the decision is a no brainer. Look no further than his 100 yard Super Bowl pick six. You’re not a real Cardinals fan if you don’t still get a sick feeling in your stomach from watching this.
Baseball: Jose Canseco
A lot of hated athletes only play the villain role within the confines of their sport and are actually nice people off the ice, field or court. Canseco takes his work home with him though as he has a very controversial life outside of baseball. Jose Canseco is the poster boy for steroid use in Major League Baseball. Steroids are already a controversial topic and many players have lost the respect of fans for using them. Canseco took this a step further. In 2005 he published a book admitting he used steroids and also outed a number of other players as steroid users. He was seen as a rat who was looking to profit off of throwing former friends and teammates under the bus. His list of legal trouble is also quite extensive with vehicle, weapons and assault related charges. For all the bad, Canseco was a 6 time All Star and league MVP. Despite the talent though, he is probably the most disliked player on this list. All the trouble he’s found away from the game has lost him respect and support from the fans. A key differentiator of Canseco is his reputation for being an all around jerk as person and not just in the confines of baseball.
Hockey: Clause Lemieux
If you’re a Detroit Red Wings fan there’s a special level of hate for Claude Lemieux, who is almost single handedly responsible for hockey’s most bitter rivalry of the late 90s through early 2000s. Biting fingers, fights, hits from behind, Claude Lemieux was a dirty player. Did he ever back it up when it counted though. He’s famous for going from a good player during the regular season to a hall of fame caliber player during the playoffs. He’s a four time Stanley cup champion and a playoff MVP. As good as he was Lemieux always played with an edge. He was a classic pest who loved to get under other player’s skin. In the 96 playoffs he hit Red Wing, Kris Draper from behind, causing a concussion and a need for facial reconstructive surgery. The incident spawned years of bad blood and future altercations between the two teams. Lemieux even received death threats and traveled with armed body guards whenever he want to Detroit.
Basketball: Christian Laettner
While Laettner played basketball professionally in the NBA, his villainous reputation was established playing college basketball for Duke. Laettner has all the ingredients of a villain in spades. ESPN even made a documentary titled “I Hate Christian Laettner” that goes into great detail on just how much he was and still is despised. Laettner was seen by many as an arrogant and privileged player. His aggressive physical style rubbed people the wrong way and the perfect example is the famous incident in during the 1992 March Madness tournament. In a game against Kentucky Laettner stomped on the chest of Aminu Timberlake while Timberlake was lying on the court. Fans were furious about the incident to begin with, but the anger only intensified when Laettner was allowed to stay in the game. Many felt that he was getting the star treatment and that if he were not a big name player he would have been ejected. Laettner took every ounce of hate he got and threw it right back in the faces of his critics. With no time left on the clock and Kentucky winning Laettner hit what is considered the greatest basket in NCAA history to win the game, known simply as “the shot”. Over his college career Laettner was berated with jeers and hateful, aggressive verbal abuse wherever he played, yet he is one of the greatest college basketball players of all time and maybe the most clutch.