Polarize (v) - "To cause to concentrate about two conflicting or contrasting positions."
In my previous post about Kobe Bryant, I called him the most polarizing figure in sports. With some inspiration from Knee Jerk, I put a little more thought into this claim, identifying the professional athletes who have elicited the most bipartisan reactions from fans in recent years. I started by brainstorming the historical players who met this criteria, but quickly learned that that was far too difficult an exercise. There is no way I could create a responsible list of the all-time most polarizing/controversial players when I either: a) wasn't alive or b) wasn't coherent enough to really get a feel for the reactions they brought forth in fans and the media. Consequently, I've narrowed this list to the 5 most polarizing athletes of the past twenty years.
Honorable Mention: Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Ron Artest, Dennis Rodman, Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley (retired), Randy Moss, Chad Johnson, The Manning Brothers, Pete Rose (retired), Mike Tyson, Jose Canseco (retired).
5. Shaquille O'Neal
The Diesel didn't make this list because he is the center of controversy (like Roger Clemens or Ron Artest). He made this list because ever since he has entered the league there have been two camps: one camp calls O'Neal the best center and most dominating force of his generation (or even all-time), the other says he was simply bigger than anyone else and did not dedicate himself to the game (pointing to his free throw percentage and lack of conditioning). Perhaps the biggest factor in including O'Neal on this list is his media-fueled feud with Kobe Bryant. Since Kobe is the most polarizing athlete in the game, anything Kobe creates a rift amongst fans. Stemming from the Kobe-Shaq feud, Kobe's supporters generally dislike (or even hate) O'Neal and Kobe's naysayers generally praise O'Neal and his accomplishments.
4. Terrell Owens
T.O. stirs up self-inflicted controversy every year. From calling out every quarterback he has ever played with, to crying after a playoff loss, to overdosing on pills, to contract disputes, to self-proclaimed greatness, to crunches in his driveway on ESPN, to trend-setting touchdown celebrations, he is constantly the center of attention. The only reason T.O. isn't higher on this list is that there is a sizeable disparity between the amount of fans who love him and the amount of fans who hate him. Every sports fan with a pulse in San Francisco, Dallas, or Philadelphia dislikes him. Older generation fans generally dislike him, and younger generation fans are split. At one time or another, most fans have at least admired his on-field accomplishments or physical attributes, even if they later made the switch and became T.O.-haters.
3. Alex Rodriguez
Any time a player is dubbed the next big thing, there is bound to be a mixed reaction. That's exactly what happened when Rodriguez came into the league as a protypical young talent. Any time a player gets those types of accolades and clearly believes them to be 100% true, the eaction is even stronger amongst fans. When that player suits up for the most polarizing team in professional sports, these reactions are only further magnified. Rodriguez's record-breaking contract, postseason struggles, MVP trophies, relations with Madonna, and steroid admissions have all elicited mixed reactions and been the focal point of the media. Just like the team he plays for, you must love him or hate him -- there is no middle ground.
2. Barry Bonds
Barry has never been a media darling, even while compiling some of the most prolific stats in his sport's history. There isn't much debate as to whether Bonds is a "likeable" public figure -- he is standoffish, arrogant, and unapproachable by fans. The debate, and the cause of the mixed reactions to Barry, are his statistics. The general assumption is that Barry took steroids for at least a portion of his career. In the process, he broke baseball's most hallowed record and took it from a former player who was endeared by the fans and was still around to witness the feat. Many fans have embraced Barry despite the controversy and have recognized him as a top-5 player of all-time, many others have chastised him and called his statistical contributions fraudulent. In a way, Barry personifies the greater steroid issue that has plagued baseball over the past decade. The rampant use of steroids has created a divide between baseball fans of old and new, where records and history play a bigger role than any other sport. For these reasons, Barry Bonds is the second-most polarizing figure in sports.
1. Kobe Bryant
Kobe wins the top spot on the list by a wide margin, in my opinion. Shaq receives more love than hate, and the other three athletes on the list receive more hate than love. What makes Kobe the most polarizing figure, in the true sense of the word, is that he receives equal parts love and equal parts disdain. For every attribute praised by a Kobe-lover, there is a rebuttal for a Kobe-hater. For every accomplishment, a caveat. Kobe ran Shaq out of L.A. /Shaq couldn't handle sharing the spotlight. Kobe is a "ballhog" / Kobe is the best scorer in the game. Kobe can't win without Shaq / Kobe hasn't had the supporting cast to win without Shaq. The list goes on... and on... and on. The love/hate divide began when Kobe came into the league and grew when he was compared to the most sacred name in hoop history: Michael Jordan. Like A-Rod, Kobe plays for the most polarizing team in his sport, which only intensifies opinions about him. No matter how you slice it, Kobe is the most loved, and hated, player in the NBA. Winning both of these imaginary awards simultaneously makes Kobe Bryant the most polarizing athlete of this era.