Professional athletes we love to hate, sometimes love again

As the dawn of a new football season approaches, I can’t help but think this has been one of the finest years in sports I’ve witnessed. When thinking about what made the year great, it’s really strange to see that my enjoyment was fueled in large part by guys I really don’t like. But what would sports be without guys we love to hate?

*LeBron James, Miami Heat*

The rise and fall of the 2010-11 Miami Heat was one of the most compelling stories of all time, fueled in large part by the backlash and fury felt toward LeBron James and crew.

If the NBA manages to work out a deal and avoid the ominous lockout, we will be treated to another season of Heat hate. I’m not sure, however, if it will ever be quite the same.

The animosity can’t have gone up since the Heat lost the 2011 Finals to the likable Dallas Mavericks. If anything, people have forgiven the humbled Heat, and no longer see them as an invincible team with an unfair advantage.

No matter how much we want LeBron to lose, he keeps winning. He is dominant. Despite being partial to the team he was slaughtering, part of me enjoyed watching James throttle the Bulls. It’s entertaining. When any NBA player gets hot and takes over a game, it’s fun to watch. When LeBron does it against a team he couldn’t beat in the regular season, it’s amazing.

*Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles*

On the football field Michael Vick went from third to first on the Eagles’ depth chart in a matter of months. It seems the only people who lost in that deal were Donovan McNabb and the Washington Redskins (especially when Vick played them on Monday Night Football). But Vick isn’t necessarily a very likable guy.

Remember how he brutally murdered 30 dogs that he forced to fight each other?

That tends to slip the mind when watching him scramble around defensive linemen like a mouse navigating through a very messy room; he’s in that zone of heightened sense that he seems to get in when a play breaks down. His speed is borderline unfair and unquestionably tantalizing.

*Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals*

If you’re not a Cardinals fan, Albert Pujols is a fearsome adversary. For Cubs fans, he’s the Joker. He is a nightmare, and every time he’s batting he looks like he knows what the pitcher wants to do more so than the pitcher does.

The Machine has a knack for clutch hitting, too. At the plate, he doesn’t ever look mean, only intensely focused. Though he’s a menace to opposing pitchers and martial law to his division rivals, Pujols is marvelous to watch. He carries himself with the utmost professionalism and plays the game the way it should be played. When it’s time to play ball, though, Pujols is an evil demigod.

*Brett Favre, (currently) retired*

(Disclaimer: I hate the Vikings.) Brett Favre joined Minnesota in 2009 and wreaked havoc on the rest of the NFC North after making a Hall of Fame career out of doing so in Green Bay. The guy is a traitor. Not only that, but apparently he sexually harassed several female New York Jets employees during his one-year tenure with that team.

So last year, when he came back for more, it was funny to see him fail miserably. As his Vikings whiffed completely on their lofty expectations, his misery became more apparent. It was humorous. At first. Then, it stopped being funny.

Favre became pitiful. He couldn’t dominate anymore, he couldn’t make magic anymore, he couldn’t win anymore.

And we lived in a world last year where Brett Favre couldn’t start anymore. He got hurt, and he hated his coach until his coach resigned.

He couldn’t make anything of the long fantasized Favre-Moss pairing, and he bottomed out trying to end his career like Elway. It’s sad, because the old gunslinger had been fun to watch.

*Deion Sanders, Hall of Fame cornerback*

Yes, I was very little when Deion was doing his thing in Atlanta and San Francisco. I wasn’t sentient enough to hate the guy when he was dominating the league. But I knew one thing: I hated Deion Sanders, or Primetime, as he so pompously called himself. The hatred was projected from my dad and older siblings onto me. But he was a self-righteous, egomaniacal, defensive demon, my reliable sources said.

Sanders’ dominance has been partially chronicled by devoted YouTube fans. The NFL Network has long employed Sanders and paid him proper tribute when he was elected into the Hall of Fame this year.

At that ceremony, Deion did something amazing: He took it all back. He took back the Primetime and the showboating and cocky, infuriating swagger that all but set the tone for self-obsessed prima donas today. Primetime took that arrogance and revealed its context, its purpose.

“I did it for my mama,” Sanders blurted through an uncomfortably enormous wave of emotion.

It’s the kind of corny attribution we’ve come to expect from modern athletes, but you couldn’t look at Deion and doubt he was being genuine. Deion’s downfall was that he was self-glorifying. That was the accepted thought. No, Deion’s self-glorification provided him his greatness.

I hate that I love that.

_Eliot Sill is a sophomore in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @EliotTweet._