Most popular athlete who was a jerk

A lot of folk are saying Tiger’s popularity has nothing to do with his personal life, but instead is based solely on his skill and success as a golfer.

Can you think of any athletes who were extremely popular with fans, despite evidence that they had some significant personality defect, or had unpleasant aspects of their personal lives?

I’m not a huge sports fan, but the closest I could come up with is Ali. Many thought to be a braggart and showboat, and he took a hit for opposing the Viet Nam War, but later rebounded to be one of the most famous personalities in the world.

WRT Tiger, BTW, I saw a poll this a.m. purpoting to say that his popularity has dropped significantly over the past couple of weeks - I believe from 85% favorable to somewhere in the 30s.

As a British football fan, it’s got to be Diego Maradona. I believe he’s still quite popular in Argentina :).

For quite a while Barry Bonds remained popular with fans, until evidence of this performance-enhancing drug use became undeniable. Most of the media who had to deal with him couldn’t stand him personally, though.

Really extraordinary athletes can get away with a lot of antisocial behavior – look at Ty Cobb. He was certainly a good ballplayer; I don’t know if he fits your definition of “popular.”

Just who I was going to say.

You can’t be much more popular than Michael Jordan. And he was never known for being overly nice to his teammates – ask Kwame Brown or Steve Kerr.

I believe we have a winner.

Joe Dimaggio was a tightfisted egomaniac. He wouldn’t make an appearance unless he was introduced as the greatest living ballplayer, which he might have been but he didn’t have to be such a jerk about it.

Dimaggio is an odd case, because… as you say, he was a miserable prick in real life. And yet, he knew better than anyone what his fans expected him to be, and worked EXTREMELY hard to maintain that image.

He didn’t like or trust anybody, but he went out of his way to sign autographs and behave in a classy manner. That made him different from guys like Barry Bonds, who never even PRETENDED to be good people.

There have always been athletes and celebs who were wrongly perceived as nice guys, even though they were really jerks (Kirby Puckett), who were wrongly perceived as wholesome Christian family men, when they were really tomcats (Steve Garvey).

I’m sort of curious- are there athletes who were beloved even though everyone KNEW what they were really like?

How about O.J. Simpson? People forget how well liked he was back in the seventies and eighties.

Yeah - I was thinking of Ty Cobb myself. Not any kind of a baseball fan myself, but I understood he was quite the unpleasant individual both on and off the field. No idea, however, how popular he was with fans - or what kind of advertising they did in those days.

I’ll have to think about Michael Jordan. I lived in Chicago and was a huge NBA fan during his career. After a point I personally got tired of reading about every tiny bit of minutiae about him. And I know he was quite the player despite being married (tho it got little pub), ultimately got divorced, and enjoyed gambling. But I don’t recall reading anything suggesting that he had any real character flaws. Instead, I recall him being presented as an incredibly hard-worker, as demanding of his teammates as he was of himself, and a loving son.

DiMaggio reminds me, Ted Williams had a reputation for being a real a-hole too.

I’d submit that being an incredibly hard worker is positively correlated with being a jerk. Barry Bonds is and was an incredibly hard worker as well.


Good call. “Rapist” is about as good a demonstration of “jerk” as can be made.

Babe Ruth? It was pretty clear he was a drunk, a womanizer, slighted his wife and family, and generally took full advantage of his status as the greatest baseball star of all time. Yet even his team mates loved him. (Cite).


Clearly we need some sort of multi-dimensional analysis: Tyson was clearly a bigger jerk than Michael Jordan, but also clearly not as popular. (Ali seems like the only guy who can really compete with Jordan on that scale, or maybe Pele, if Pele was a jerk.)

Hmm… how about Iverson? I wouldn’t say he’s a complete jerk, but he definitely doesn’t try to be wholesome for the fans. And I wouldn’t say he’s completely beloved, but there are a lot of AI fans.

Charles Barkley got a lot of love for being blunt and kind of jerkish.

Michael Jordan is the first name that came to my mind, too. One seriously self-absorbed prick, but still idolized.

I don’t think OJ fits what the OP is looking for, since I’m pretty sure that he had a rather clean image (not much unlike Tiger Woods) until he added “double murder” to his list of accomplishments.

Here’s another good candidate: Magic Johnson. Another situation that’s quite similar to Woods’, biggest difference being that his infidelity was exposed by getting infected with HIV instead of a car crash. Unlike Tiger, almost everyone was sympathetic to Magic’s plight.

I don’t know, was Ali a jerk. Everything I’ve heard about him indicates he’s an all-around nice guy, if a little show-offy and full of himself.

Most of Ali’s braggadocio was just an act; he was a big fan of the original loudmouthed pro wrestler, Gorgeous George Wagner: