No Athletes Inspire as Much Devotion as the Ones I Love to Hate

Villains might be my secret favorite thing in sports.

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Apr 30 2018, 4:17pm

'Madden 18' screenshot courtesy of Electronic Arts

Most of the time, my love of sports comes from a place of positivity. I love the building tension of the final moments of a close contest, or watching someone at the absolute pinnacle of their profession expressing and demonstrating their mastery in the most incredible ways. Playoffs are my favorite time of year because you also see how great athletes and teams rise to the most demanding moments, overcoming physical exhaustion and creeping doubt. That’s great stuff, and I spend a good many hours of my week celebrating it.

But then there are the figures that I cannot stop loathing, and yet cannot look away from because I am so eagerly awaiting my next dose of shock, outrage, and disgust. I desperately want sports to serve them their comeuppance, lovingly catalogue their sins and mistakes, and have one-sided arguments with broadcasters who insist on praising teams and players who I know, in the bottom of my heart, are complete and irredeemable assholes.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the dispiritingly long list of star athletes who have been credibly accused of being various forms of dirtbag and abuser. I’m talking about people who are fine, maybe even great, but the problem is they totally suck and the world just seems to refuse to see it.

F1 2017' screenshot courtesy of Codemasters

I’m talking about the Matthew Dellavedova’s of the world, who are undeniably talented and hard-working players… but whose real art is getting under people’s skin and getting his rivals to lose their cool. Or Boston’s enfant terrible, Brad Marchand, a brilliant hockey player whose on-ice behavior ranges between edgy, creepy, and borderline criminal.

Or there’s my current Formula 1 obsession, Max Verstappen: A driver who somehow manages to be the embodiment of privilege and entitlement in a sport jam-packed with millionaires and billionaires, and whose every fuckup is somehow interpreted as further evidence of his nascent greatness. Ever since he entered the sport as the youngest driver in its history, he has been defined by a reputation as an athlete of unlimited potential… and by the on-track incidents he causes with jaw-droppingly aggressive and irresponsible moves.

Yesterday, after he blocked his teammate Daniel Ricciardo on a fast straight at the Azerbaijan GP and caused a 180 mph crash, I must have spent five or ten minutes watching slow-motion replays of the crash and raving about the egregiousness of what I’d just witnessed.

“Look! There! See! Don’t you see ?!” I shouted at the TV. “He is checking his mirrors to keep blocking Ricciardo.”

“I really can’t tell who was at fault,” my partner said gently.

“OH I CAN: Here let me show you again at one-quarter speed.”

But even as I marshall argument and evidence against Verstappen like I might one day be asked to prosecute him in a court of racing law, I have to concede that I love how much I hate him. I love the righteous indignation that marks my Sunday mornings, the way I howl with disgust as announcers and commentators talk about how “talented and aggressive” he is every time another driver rescues him from his bad decisions.

I love clean racing and skilfull duels between great drivers, but I don’t think there is another driver whose actions I scrutinize and memorize like Max’s, and I think some part of me dreads the possibility that one day he might get his act together. Because for all the things I say I love about sports, sometimes I think I love its villains most of all.

What great, terrible athletes or teams are you weirdly fixated on? What is their worst sporting crime, in your eyes?

Let me know in today’s open thread!