The Intrigue of Sports Villainy

Mug shot of man in drag with blue wig and feather boaWe love our sports heroes. Oh, do we LOVE our sports heroes! Babe Ruth, Joe Montana, Magic Johnson, Roger Federer, Mia Hamm, Cal Ripken, LeBron James, Peyton Manning – the “good guys” of sports are beloved by fans and marketers alike.

These stars win championships (or compete for them every year), donate money, work in the community, sponsor brands – they do everything heroes should do.

Heck, Drew Brees has helped rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina with time, effort and money – and just last night brought the Super Bowl trophy to his adopted hometown. It didn’t complete the economic and social recovery, but it gave the city something wonderful to rally around.

But you know what?

Villains are much more intriguing than heroes.

Tiger Woods dominated the sports pages for over a decade for winning tournament after tournament after tournament – in dominating fashion, no less. But after salacious details of his personal life leaked out, he became a news and entertainment story, as well.

Boxers like Lennox Lewis ruled over their sport for years, but nobody ever garnered the attention of powerhouse “bad boy” Mike Tyson. Even after serving jail time for a rape conviction, the public could not get enough of him, in and out of the ring.

Exhibit A:

Enough said.

A quirky all-star who does a “heel turn,” to borrow from professional wrestling (when a good guy becomes a bad guy), by playing with guns in his workplace, all of the sudden becomes a national news story. Rumors of high-stakes locker-room gambling debts overtake the game-winning shots from the hands of one Gilbert Arenas. We identify him not with the play on the court, but what he confessed to in front of a judge.

My question to you is this: What is it about sports villains that make them so intriguing? Why does their villainy trump their heroics? And why do we allow them to stay relevant in the media?

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  • jeffespo

    Mike, would you say that we are drawn to the villain because we want to see them fail? Or secretly do we all want them to come out on top for once?

  • mikeschaffer

    I think it depends on the situation. The “anti-hero” villain who is so bad, he's cheered for (Tyson) does seem to invoke passion. Whereas “bad guys” like, let's say Roger Clemens, you want to see them fall on their faces.

  • What makes sports villains so intriguing is that, I think, we want to see their inherent good. I was the first person to criticize A-Rod about the steroids issue. However, I started to forget it and root for him in the post-season. I wanted him to win.
    We are a forgiving society and when those villains come around, we sort of “celebrate” them.
    Two of my all-time favorite ballplayers were Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. Each fell from grace because of drugs and alcohol. They were considered poster children for bad behavior/drug culture. Now, Strawberry has become a Mets ambassador and Gooden is going to be honored in the Mets Hall of Fame. Both have cleaned up their lives and continue to mentor youth to make sure they stay on the right path.

  • Mike, you bring up a good point. Great athletes are often put on a pedestal. They're so good at what they do, we forget that they're humans and make mistakes.

    When Tiger's many marital affairs came to light, we were surprised. We no longer viewed him as the happy, polo-wearing king of the green. His public image was ruined. Of course there were people who were waiting for Tiger to mess up. He was almost too perfect. He came into a game previously dominated by one man and took over.

    When news spread that Tiger cheated, he became human. He was no longer the hero. He was the bad guy who hurt his wife and broke up his happy home.

  • jeffespo

    Yeah Tyson was like the Cubs – a lovable loser, who liked the taste of ears.

    Clemens is just an arrogant ass so I like seeing him fail.

    I would also like to put Peyton Manning into the Villain Circle. Aside from one year he couldn't win the big game and is too pretty and lathered with praise from the media. They almost make him the untouchable champion of football. So like the Rocket he evokes hatred as well.

  • mikeschaffer

    Six words for you about Peyton:


  • jeffespo

    Again, with the commercials, it is like he is being forced down our throats as the NFL poster boy.

  • Mike,

    Great post! Vanilla Ice last week, backed up by The Hangover this week! You're on fire.

    To the post though, it's very similar to how we treat our Hollywood stars and politicians, we simply build them up and then wait for them fall.

    Not sure if it's a jealousy thing, but a lot plays into the 24-hour news cycle. We have to fill all that time somehow, right?

  • I like your article, I love villains whether it is pro wrestling, other sports, or movies the “bad guy” seems more interesting as has more substance to them than the good guy. I took some acting classes and its more fun to be the jerk sometimes.

    The good guys always say the right thing to the media and never get in trouble. Or least they’re smart enough not to get caught. From PR standpoint that is great you can rely on the Manning’s to sell you Oreos or flat planel Sony televisions. But there is no drama and just like any good movie you have to have conflict.

    You mentioned the heel turn, I think that was best exemplified with my New England Patriots. After 9-11 and winning SB 36 the Pats were the darlings of the NFL. Fast forward a few years later when spygate breaks out it felt like everybody was hating on the Pats. Quite a few people despise Bill Belichick. He never smiles, refuses to give out any injury or pertinent information to journalist. Gotta love those villains.

  • Excellent post Mike. In the case of athletes and celebrities, failures remind us that although they may be the best at what they do, they’re no different than you and me. The bad guys are more intriguing because you never know what they might do next and any chance to bring them down to earth provides some sort of sick gratification. Everyone loves a good controversy and bad news naturally gathers more media attention.

  • Alan Rickman, who is famous for playing villains in American movies, was once asked why he always played them. And he said, “I don't play villains. I play very interesting people.”

    The fact is that complicated characters and people are more exciting to watch then heroes. That's why Batman is just better than Superman. He's darker. And the Joker is the best to watch out of them all, because he's dark AND crazy.

    So it's not just sports. We are just naturally drawn to the most bizarre spectacle.

  • mikeschaffer

    Thanks for commenting, Jason!

    Darryl and Dwight are two great examples of athletes who struggled with “demons” for years (decades?) before finally (hopefully) conquering them.

    Do we want to see the bad guys become the good guys at the end? Seems like a good theory to me!

  • mikeschaffer

    Appreciate you stopping by, Alexia!

    I've always been very uncomfortable with the “human” excuse for people doing bad things. It brings down humanity to a bad level, where it just doesn't belong.

    You are absolutely right, this scandal added a new dimension to Tiger, one completely different from anything we've seen from him before.

    Can we still wear red on Sundays, though?

  • mikeschaffer

    Take heed, 'cause I'm a lyrical poet, my friend!

    I think when we talk concepts, it's important to put them into context, hence the pop culture references 🙂

    What about the bad guys we build up and wait for them to see the light? I think it works both ways.

  • mikeschaffer

    Ah, someone who understands the pro wrestling connection in all this!

    Honestly, WWE superstars Randy Orton and Edge were big inspirations for this post. As the top villains for the past several years, fans didn't care who was facing them – they just wanted them to lose. Instead of rooting for the good guy, they were rooting against the bad guy, which made for an excellent dynamic. Even against someone like The Undertaker, Edge was the more intriguing character.

    The Pats definitely did a major heel turn there! GREAT analogy!!!

    Can we say Brett Favre turned heel on Green Bay by joining the Vikings?

  • mikeschaffer

    So the unpredictability draws the intrigue? I LIKE that a lot. We know what the heroes will say and do – the villains are wild cards. Awesome, awesome, awesome!

  • mikeschaffer

    My stream of consciousness while reading your comment:

    Alan Rickman…love him…he was great in Dogma…villains more interesting…yes..yes…complication=intrigue…yes…yes…HOLY LEFT TURN!!! Batman is NOT better than Superman!!!!!! Yes…yes…Joker is awesome…he'll kill you for a laugh…not just sports…works for me.

  • beccameyers

    Perhaps we are intrigued/jealous of people being “bad” yet still living the dream?

  • Good point, American's love a good comeback or bad turned good story!