If a poll were taken, Roger Federer might emerge as the most popular sportsman today. Lionel Messi, too, might be high on the list. Such examples trip easily off the tongue. But what about their opposite number: the unpopular sportsman?
Sportsmen could be unpopular for a variety of reasons: bad behaviour on the field of play can earn the label; sometimes being successful (such people often come across as too cold and inwardly-focussed) can be a problem too. A colourful past could go either way — it might make someone more endearing (Shane Warne, Muhammad Ali) or less popular (Mike Tyson). Sometimes sheer talent causes jealousies among team-mates and every small act is blown out of proportion by a greedy media.
Not Mr. Popular
Patrick Reed, the American who won the Augusta Masters recently, probably ticks all the boxes. He is only 27, but has managed to make enemies of golf fans, team-mates in the Ryder Cup, his own parents and sister and most writers on the sport. Unpopularity on that scale is astonishing, and makes him a most interesting study. Perhaps he is more to be pitied than censured. Or perhaps he deserves both pity and censure.
“This is not my brother any more,” Reed’s kid sister Hannah once wrote, “but a selfish, horrible stranger.”
Bad boy image
Reed married at 22; his parents disapproved, and he has never spoken to them again. But his troubles began long before that. Under-age drinking, stealing from the locker room, and golf’s original sin: cheating at the game were part of his CV . On the Tour, he became unpopular for suggesting he was one of the top five players in the world when he was ranked 44th, for shushing the crowd at the Ryder Cup, and for uttering a gay slur (he was berating himself) during a tournament.
Sometimes sportsmen just play into the bad boy image, comfortable at not having to follow the rules of civilised behaviour. Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios, for example, has pushed the bounds of the forgiveable often enough to give himself a permanent seat in the Hall of Infamy.
It is difficult to know if anyone will top his stunt of telling Stanislas Wawrinka that fellow Australian player Thanasi Kokkinakis had sex with his girlfriend.
“Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend, sorry to tell you that mate,” Kyrgios said during a match with Wawrinka. Was that better or worse than David Warner punching Joe Root in a Birmingham bar? At least that did not involve a third person!
Sportsmen do behave badly, as do rock stars and politicians. But sports fans are more forgiving. To remain unpopular in an environment where bad behaviour is not uncommon, and where forgiveness comes easily, must take something special.
Asked why he was unpopular, Reed said at the Masters, “I have no idea, and honestly I don’t really care. I’m out here to do my job, and that’s to play golf.”
To adapt from Tolstoy, “Popular sportsmen are all alike; every unpopular sportsman is unpopular in his own way.”