The biggest heels in sports television

Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

Ovechkin, A-Rod, Romo... who draws the most ire of TV talking heads?

Often, we all complain about sports talk on television and the idea that it caters to the superstars. That some players are so famous and so talented that literally nothing bad can be said about them by a talking head. I think about guys like Derek Jeter, Brett Favre (before you-know-what), Sidney Crosby, athletes who are seen by fans as getting special treatment from the networks that broadcast and talk about their games.

However, I've noticed that there's another group. The athletes who, despite an immense gift for the sport they play, just can't seem to escape the ire of analysts. With the help of a couple of SBN's department editors and just asking around to a few friends, I came up with a list of the men who, despite being star athletes, play the role of the heel whenever you hear their name come up.

Alexander Ovechkin

"The Great 8" was seen as a game-changer when he entered the National Hockey League in 2005. A winger who steamrolled down one side of the ice, and could unleash his powerful shot and score at any moment from anywhere. He is largely responsible for the Washington Capitals becoming one of hockey's bedrock, big-time franchises. You see the Capitals on national television every couple weeks because of Ovie.

However, the Capitals still haven't gotten past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs since Ovechkin debuted, and as he is the captain, he has taken some of the criticism. But more often than not, it's Ovechkin's style that rubs the often overly-provincial hockey fun police the wrong way. Don Cherry was the first person to knock him, criticizing his celebration of a 2009 game where he celebrated his 50th goal in a manner that Grapes felt lacked "a little class."

Since then, the idea that Ovechkin is not necessarily a team player, or a player capable of playing defense, has increased as well. Mike Milbury recently went on a rant that featured such quips as telling Ovechkin to "act like a man" and stay out on the ice while his team was being scored on. The man known for beating up a New York Ranger fan with a shoe quipped that Ovechkin "should be ashamed of himself" for his defensive play. CBC's PJ Stock noted that, after watching a period of his play against the Winnipeg Jets, Ovie "doesn't deserve the puck". Ovechkin's play was criticized again as recently as last Sunday during a game against the New York Rangers.

Ovechkin, to his credit, has always had a good sense of humor. He brushed off Milbury's criticism by pointing out his middling, chaotic stint as GM of the New York Islanders, and suggesting that Milbury "doesn't like Russians".

LeBron James

We're not even going to focus on the obvious, post-The Decision blathering in here. The noise has decreased severely on this one ever since LBJ won his first title, but to be fair, no one else on this list has a list of people mad at him for winning a title topped by a major network sports analyst. That analyst, Skip Bayless, continues to dump columns filled with garbage hating on LeBron, despite his NBA Championship ring. In fact, there may be no athlete Bayless considers himself to have a "relationship with" creepier than LeBron James. Check out this, from that November column:

I think LeBron is a nice guy who has a standing invitation to join us on our show and discuss any and all issues he has with me. I've been told several times in the past five years that he has wanted to but that his advisers didn't think it was good idea. LeBron, in fact, has said several times in interviews that he is entertained and motivated by my criticism and has called me his "Howard Cosell," referring to the fearlessly critical broadcaster whose lovingly tough interviews with Muhammad Ali were sometimes better than The Greatest's fights. Honored, LeBron.

Yeesh. I don't watch Skip Bayless nearly as much as the people who (rightfully) spend more time criticizing him, but if sports media is a vacuum, Bayless is the sound you hear whenever you accidentally vacuum up loose change in the corner of your room.

Of course, after the Heat's NBA Finals victory over Oklahoma City last year, Skip has quieted down a bit. Still, every little thing LeBron does is judged. Take the recent controversy over LeBron's dunking routine in pre-game warmups, which has drawn Magic Johnson to complain about how LeBron never participates in the NBA All-Star Slam Dunk contest, and later ask everyone to essentially cyberbully James into participating. Basketball isn't my sport, but I must say, I admire the amount LeBron James is thrown into the ringer and still, every night, seems to do something spectacular.

Alex Rodriguez

Alex Rodriguez probably thought he would be in a similar category to LeBron after winning his first World Series with the Yankees in 2008. He probably didn't anticipate that his career would pretty much fall off a mountain after that year.

That's almost irrelevant however, as the New York media goes through a consistent, cyclical period of A-Rod bashing (and then apologizing for that bashing) seemingly every year. There's the bizarrely titled New York Times piece "It Seems as if Everyone Hates Alex Rodriguez," then "Is Alex Rodriguez Too Harshly Criticized for his Playoff Performances?" There's Reggie Jackson calling out A-Rod, then there's Reggie Jackson apologizing for calling out A-Rod.

We're probably a little late to the A-Rod party here, because A) his career is currently on life support as, despite his contract, he remains injured and is coming off his two worst seasons, and B) A lot of the talk about Rodriguez is justified because of his admitted steroid use in Texas and the further rumors of using that have since come out. But it'd be a shame to do this list without one of the great all-time heels in sports history.

Tony Romo

Since the start of the 2012 NFL season, Skip Bayless and the cast of First Take have done the following things with regard to Tony Romo:

Of course, during the previous off-season, he claimed that Romo sends people "over the edge" with their hatred of the Cowboys, and is also on the hot seat. All this for a guy who's always completed 60 percent of his passes and has thrown for 3,000 yards or more in five out of six seasons (the only one he didn't was one in which he missed 10 games with an injury). Yet, the Cowboys draw big in the national discussion, and Bayless -- who spent a decade and a half in Dallas -- knows that as much as anyone.

Jay Cutler

Here's another one where you might be like "eh, you know what? He probably deserves it," or "that's using the term star pretty loosely." The fact is, Cutler is a star on name recognition, but has also taken a team to an NFC Championship Game, where they fell apart, in part, because he was injured. Jay Cutler is the starting quarterback of the Chicago Bears -- not that the Bears have ever been about big names at that position -- but that alone is enough to consider him a star.

He's probably a bit more of a game manager than a gunslinger, but he also gets some of the most absurd criticisms. Tom Jackson called him out for not saying hello to stadium workers. Fox created fake newspaper headlines calling out his supposed toughness. It got so weird at one point last season that Charles Barkley of all people was the one to make some actual sense about it.

Jay Cutler does a lot of things to get on people's nerves. He has a pseudo-celebrity girlfriend, there was that weird meme that caught him smoking, and the whole idea that he doesn't look like he cares out there. But really, if analysts from other sports are coming to your defense, isn't that enough to say that the criticism is out of hand?

Patrick Marleau

While the Ovie hatred from Mike Milbury and co. are much more well known, perhaps no NHL star player is under-the-radar criticized as much as the San Jose Sharks center. Despite career totals of 400 goals and nearly 850 points, he often takes the brunt of the Sharks' lack of ability to get it done come playoff time.

No television analyst has made it as clear that Marleau -- above, say, Joe Thornton or Dany Heatley or Dan Boyle or Evgeni Nabakov, or anyone else from the current era in San Jose -- is deserving of blame than NBC Sports analyst Jeremy Roenick. What makes the story even more interesting is that Roenick spent two seasons playing with Marleau on the Sharks from 2007-09. He fired off his first shot after a 2011 playoff game, in which Roenick called Marleau's performance "gutless." Marleau responded two games later with the game-winning goal in Game 7 of that series.

Roenick, more than anyone else on the NHL's television partners, continues to sound off on Marleau. In his fall 2012 memoir, J.R., Roenick spends an entire chapter on "The Five Players I Hated During My Career," which includes Marleau among the likes of pests and goons like Rob Ray and Steve Ott. For his part, Marleau has always shot back at Roenick, and suggested that "he's saying stuff so people watch. I don't have to like it or agree with it, but he's trying to get viewers." It's hard not to take Marleau's sensible side of the equation vs. Roenick's seeming paranoia, but until he's got his name on the Stanley Cup, J.R. will still probably knock the hell outta the guy.

***

Who are some of your favorites? I'm not attuned to soccer coverage in the United States as much as I perhaps should be, but who are some favorite targets in the Premier League, or MLS, or the U.S. National Team? Feel free to contribute some of your own suggestions in the comments.

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