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This is going to be a column about why I love Ole Miss’s Marshall Henderson, but first let me ask you this question — what happened to villain athletes?
Remember back in the day when some athletes reveled in being hated? Bill Laimbeer, Charles Barkley, John McEnroe, Reggie Miller, Dennis Rodman, Barry Bonds, John Starks, Mike Tyson the list went on and on, pro sports was a lot more like wrestling, there was always a talented athlete there to play the heel. It made sports really, really fun. Particularly basketball, where you weren’t just rooting for someone you were rooting against someone as well. Now there are no villains.
Think about this for a minute, who is the most hated athlete in pro sports?
If you said LeBron James, you’re just lazy. LeBron James wants to be loved more than any great basketball player we’ve ever watched. Hell, LeBron actually played worse when people didn’t like him. He doesn’t take fuel from hate, his rocketship is propelled by fan adoration. Besides, hating LeBron was always stupid. So he announced for a new basketball team in a hamhanded and stupid way, big deal. That’s really enough to make us hate him?
But 90% of y’all will still answer LeBron. (Joakim Noah has really great NBA hate potential here, but he’s just not popular enough to make the cut yet. Being a villain also requires that you be both good and famous. Being a crappy villain isn’t that enjoyable, you need to play in lots of games that matter).
Okay, who is the second most hated in pro sports? Alex Rodriguez. Probably a good guess too, right? Only A Rod may want to be liked even more than LeBron. A Rod’s entire persona is fake, oleaginous, everything about him is designed to make you like him which, paradoxically, makes everyone like him less. If A Rod played the villain he’d be infinitely more entertaining, but he doesn’t, he craves our approbation too much.
The most violent and popular sport in America is the NFL.
Can you even name a single villain in the entire sport?
I can’t. Maybe James Harrison, but is he even famous enough to be a villain? There’s no skill position player that’s a villain, no quarterback that drives fans made with hate. Even Ray Lewis, a man who was charged with double murder!, isn’t a villain. Yep, the guy who was charged with killing two people is beloved now. Read all the media coverage of Lewis this week, no one even points out that his religion is completely hypocritical. ESPN just made him cry in a televised interview. What’s more, Ray Lewis has never embraced the villain role, he’s always tried to be loved.
You know who the most hated player in the NFL probably is based on my polling you guys on Twitter? Tim Tebow. And that’s just because ESPN has covered him so aggressively you couldn’t escape Tebow-mania. Making Tebow into a villain is just ridiculous, he’s the least villainous athlete in pro sports history. Oh, man, Tebow is so bad he made Filipino boys cookies after he circumcised them. Look, there goes Tebow again, reading his Bible and not having sex or drinking alcohol.
Hating Tebow is like turning your church Sunday school teacher into the anti-christ.
That’s how desperate we are for NFL villains, we choose the guys that ESPN covers the most on television and try to make them into villains. Because you certainly can’t find any on the field every Sunday.
When you get right down to it, I’m not sure we’ve ever had a time in sports history where all three major pro sports, basketball, football, and baseball, don’t have a single villain.
All this has got me wondering, what killed sports villains?
How did we get to this place, where everyone has to be liked, where everyone is afraid to embrace their inner heel? When did athletes all become so similar on the court or field?
Right now there is only one true sports villain in America.
That’s Floyd Mayweather, the last of his kind, the final villain in American sports. Boxing has always lended itself to villainy, the ultimate man vs. man bout, good vs. evil sells really damn well. I love Mayweather because he has completely played middle America. He’s the bad guy. And people pay lots of money to see the bad guy lose. Only Mayweather revels in this hate, loves to drive fans insane with rage, and he wins. Mayweather understands that down deep he’s an entertainer, he’s playing a role, the sport’s the thing. And no one plays the role better than Mayweather.
But why is Mayweather the last of the villain Mohicans?
Especially when, if anything, our own popular culture has featured the rise of the anti-hero. Look across the television shows that you love, Tony Soprano, Sgt. Nicolas Brody, Don Draper, all of these men have extreme elements of villainy within their character. Yet their flaws make us love them more, consume their every twist and turn, being a man in full makes you infinitely more interesting.
Except in sports.
Why is this? Why have villains all but died in American sports? Is it money, that athletes are all so consumed with endorsement deals that they’re afraid to be disliked because their income statements will decline? Is it that the “hater” gene has so far infiltrated our culture that everyone’s a little bit hated, meaning there’s no room for anyone to be universally reviled?
I can think of several hypotheses, but all of them are a bit lacking. It seems like now would be the most fertile time of all for the rise of the villain in pro sports. Everywhere else the villain is ascendant. Because when you get right down to it, sports is entertainment. That’s why we watch. And sporting villains make the spectacle infinitely better.
I’m thinking quite a bit about the decline of villainy of late because of Marshall Henderson’s meteoric rise in SEC basketball this year. He’s a first-rate villain, and he’s playing the role with astounding verisimilitude. Henderson is the rarest or rarities, an athlete who seems to play better when he marinates in your hate, a wild-eyed crazy deep-shooting assassin who stalks the court like a mental patient then comes off a curl and drains a back-breaking three that sucks the life out of your team.
He’s the SEC’s leading scorer on a 17-2 team and he’s single-handedly making the SEC basketball season worth watching this year.
Without Henderson no one is talking about the SEC this year — villains sell.
Witness the end of the Auburn game this past weekend when Henderson drained two free throws and then taunted the student section.
Look how Angry Henderson got Auburn basketball fans.
Let me repeat, Auburn basketball fans. (Yes, they really exist).
I can watch this gif from The Big Lead over and over again.
Because it’s entertaining as hell.
Why are all these Auburn fans so mad at Marshall Henderson? These same kids screamed at Henderson all game and now that he’s won he can’t run over and pop his jersey in their face? The fact that no one even does this anymore is amazing in the first place.
Marshall Henderson is entertaining as hell, the Mayweather of the SEC, the last villain below the Mason-Dixon line.
I’m building my entire night around Kentucky at Ole Miss this evening. If you had told me back in January that I’d been building my entire night around a Kentucky-Ole Miss basketball game I would have told you you were crazy.
Almost as crazy as Marshall Henderson.
Come tonight I’d encourage you to dial into ESPN and sit back and watch the Marshall Henderson show, if history is prelude, it may be a very long time until another villain is on your television screen again in primetime.
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