The Most Polarizing Athletes In Pro Sports

If you're a fan of any professional sports team, you've probably come across those players who fans either love or love to hate. These athletes are the subject of scrutiny no matter what they do, be it winning game after game, or going on an intense losing streak. But with the haters also come the die-hard fans, who will have these players' backs, no matter how good (or bad) they've been performing lately. Athletes like Michael Vick and Antonio Brown have definitely found themselves in the news for a variety of reasons — not just their playing ability. While most fans' opinions tend to be justified regarding their strong feelings about a player, other star athletes find themselves the subject of many Twitter rants and Reddit discussions simply because they happen to be extremely talented and yet play for an opposing team.

Sports fans having strong opinions one way or another is nothing new, but it's a phenomenon that still continues to this day. Players who have been around for ages are sure to be on many people's lips, but even some newcomers have found themselves the center of attention (and not always for a great reason). Here are 15 professional athletes who seem to be the most polarizing for fans.

Tom Brady — the GOAT or overrated?

We'd be remiss if we began any article about current polarizing athletes with anyone other than Tampa Bay Buccaneers star quarterback Tom Brady. Brady is definitely one of those players who has attracted impassioned fans and people who just love to hate-watch him. After racking up Super Bowl wins in New England, Brady moved down to Tampa Bay to prove that he could win with any franchise, which ingratiated him with Bucs fans but annoyed Patriots die-hards. Fans call him the GOAT, while others say he is nothing but an overrated and overpaid player with an ego more inflated than the footballs he uses.

Fans who love him can't help but recount his made-for-film origin story. Brady was an underdog who was passed over by numerous scouts and had the improbable opportunity to become a starting QB, where he won a Super Bowl in his second year, per SBNation. Those who hate him accuse him of cheating (Deflategate or Spygate, anyone?) and are also just plain sick of hearing from the guy. They argue he's become more of a brand than an individual, and many don't love seeing him leave his franchise behind to pursue individual glory.

Tua Tagovailoa faces pressure

Tua Tagovailoa is one of the most polarizing players in the NFL. The college phenom, who was the runner-up for the Heisman trophy in 2018, wasn't drafted number one in the 2020 NFL Draft, but he went fifth overall, showcasing the faith teams had in his continued success (Tagovailoa led his collegiate team, the Alabama Crimson Tide, to win the National Championship in 2018). However, Tagovailoa didn't deliver, and it seemed he was crumbling under the pressure of becoming a franchise quarterback.

There are still plenty who are on Tagovailoa's side, including the Dolphins front office, according to SI, who fired their head coach instead of their QB when the team failed to make the postseason. And the Dolphins' new head coach assured Tagovailoa they'd work together to unlock his full potential. But detractors of the former Alabama player deride his skills, saying he's a one-trick pony who lacks the arm capabilities of someone like Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rogers. While most people agree that Tagovailoa has a certain talent, they say he doesn't have the overall package to become a true franchise QB. Needless to say, Tagovailoa's become quite a polarizing player and has kept all eyes on Miami.

Cristiano Ronaldo is always entertaining

Former Manchester United player Cristiano Ronaldo is probably the most polarizing soccer player on the planet. According to Bleacher Report, no matter what a fan might think of Ronaldo, the Portuguese star is a joy to watch and provides endless hours of entertainment on the pitch. He's naturally gifted, and when he takes the field, it's almost guaranteed to be an exciting game to watch. However, with all that natural talent comes an ego to match, and Ronaldo hasn't made his opinion of himself unknown.

Those who love Ronaldo recognize his talent and know what an asset he can be for a team. Others, who hate-watch him, realize that he can be selfish on the pitch, refusing to pass to teammates for the chance to score himself (a play style that allowed him to become the first male player to score in five consecutive World Cups, per AP News). He also easily goes down, trying to get penalties for contact that wouldn't usually be called if not for his over-exaggeration. Finally, Ronaldo isn't afraid to share his opinion. He and his former Premier League club, Manchester United, reportedly reached a mutual decision for him to depart after he gave an interview disparaging the club, per NPR. Ronaldo certainly attracts his fair share of negative and positive attention.

LeBron James left fans behind

When NBA fans discuss who's the GOAT, a few names come to mind, but perhaps none as frequently as Michael Jordan and LeBron James. In fact, it's the comparison of James to the arguably best NBA player ever (Jordan), that causes the Los Angeles Lakers star to be so polarizing in several fans' minds. The former Cleveland Cavaliers star ranks higher than Jordan in some all-time statistical categories, but people still think James has nothing on Jordan's charisma, panache, and ability to make the game accessible for more people.

Fans of James know he's more than earned his potential GOAT status and applaud him for returning to Cleveland to bring that franchise its first NBA championship. They also love his charity work and his ability to be a great team leader. Detractors of the basketball star say his ego far surpasses his ability and deride him for leaving Cleveland in the first place in pursuit of his first career title. They also think he's too quick to state his opinion on things he's not quite well-versed in, leading him to issue apologies on more than one occasion. While people appreciate his hard work and his ability to inspire future generations of players, others are sick of constantly being bombarded with images of James and wish for the love of various NBA players to be spread around by the media.

Sidney Crosby knows what he's doing

For a polarizing player in the NHL, we need to look no further than Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby. The NHL great has courted his fair share of controversy, enough that some publications, like The Ledge, have asked if he is the "biggest sports villain." Crosby is undoubtedly talented, and fans of his are quick to point out his natural skills and his ability to lead the Penguins to the Stanley Cup three times. He also won the playoff MVP for two consecutive seasons, only the third NHL player to do so, per the NHL. Any conversation of hockey greats has to include him, as his time on the ice has paid off for the Penguins organization and has proven his incredible talent. In fact, the NHL has declared him possibly the most decorated player in history.

But for all his talent, he's also an incredibly dirty player. According to The Ledge, Crosby gets away with things no other sports great (like LeBron James or Tom Brady) could. He's notoriously dangerous on the ice, committing fouls that would get heavily scrutinized in any other sport and cause numerous fines to be levied against him. However, he doesn't get censured by the NHL, due, in part, to how much media attention he's giving them. But those who want the game to improve and who are concerned with player safety don't love Crosby's style of play and don't wish to see it rewarded.

Kyle Busch can drive hard

Team sports aren't the only type to have athletes who split fans. In fact, Kyle Busch is probably one of the most polarizing figures across all sports, not just in NASCAR. But no matter if people agree with that statement, Busch is definitely a driver NASCAR fans love or love to hate. There's no doubt Busch is a talented driver, and his stats show that some of his ego is probably warranted. Busch's fans laud his ability to finish strongly, despite whatever he faces on the track, per Bleacher Report, and also love his attitude, which doesn't approve of any place but first. But his detractors look at that approach and how it's translated to the track and don't always think it's worth supporting.

Many times, he's caused more harm than good, leading to some scary close calls in a few races, or even causing accidents. Those who don't love Busch also deride his attitude of passing the blame whenever anything goes wrong. Even though he might be the cause of an accident or not performing as well as he expected, he can feel it was never his fault or his driving that led to his defeat. This devil-may-care personality has certainly rubbed people the wrong way, so they don't always support him when he does win, though that doesn't seem to bother Busch. "Unfortunately for me, mine has never been very gracious — and I don't know that it ever will be," he once said, via Essentially Sports.

Neymar pulls fans' attention

If Cristiano Ronaldo is the most polarizing player in international football (aka soccer), Neymar da Silva Santos Jr., otherwise known as Neymar, isn't far behind. Neymar has made a name for himself by being a very talented player from Brazil, who has succeeded not only with the Brazilian national team but also in the European leagues, working with other soccer greats Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé to bring Paris Saint-Germain to Champions League victories. However, although Neymar's talent can't be denied, and fans of PSG and the Brazilian national side are quick to point out his skill with the ball and incredible footwork, there are many who think Neymar is overrated and don't love the style of soccer he plays, or his personality off the pitch.

While some fans' dislike of Neymar can be attributed to their dislike of PSG as a side in general, others don't like the numerous dives the star Brazilian takes during almost every game, per PSGTalk. They also take issue with the fact that Neymar seems to have an ego the size of his home country, and doesn't seem to take too kindly to criticism. Whenever his side loses, he's quick to pass the blame and doesn't always agree with the way games are called. While fans will concede that his stats do tend to back up his ego, they also know that Neymar knows he's good, and most are happy to see him lose.

Tom Wilson hits hard

Since he entered the NHL in 2013, Tom Wilson has received more penalties than any other player as of 2021, per The Sporting News. The large forward is very physical and isn't afraid to use his body. Wilson's style is indicative of a greater issue with hockey, as the severity of his punishments is a topic of debate amongst those in the sport, including coaches, The Washington Times reported. His play style is indicative of the enforcer style of the 1980s and '90s, and newer fans, who are concerned with player safety and reducing the number of hits to open the game up to new fans and players, don't love how much Wilson is able to get away with.

Those who are on his side, however, argue that Wilson is doing nothing more than using the skills he knows and the body he has to create opportunities. Although most Wilson supporters can be found in the Washington region, others around the country acknowledge his skill with the stick and his natural skating abilities. Wilson has seen a plethora of fines and penalties using a physical style of play detractors don't like, but that fans find incredibly effective.

Carlos Correa spoke out

The world of Major League Baseball has seen its fair share of scandals throughout its over 100 years of being in operation, but the most recent is still seared in fans' minds, especially since the team involved — the Houston Astros — has recently made it to the World Series, even winning the one in 2022. The Astros' scandal was one that has been seen before, per The New York Times, and it involved a complicated series of moves that allowed batters to understand what pitch would be coming next. But what does this have to do with Carlos Correa? The Platinum Glove winner was caught up in the scandal, but — unlike most players – he took it upon himself to speak out about the cheating and its consequences.

While Correa is undoubtedly a fantastic and talented player, earning numerous fans throughout many different franchises, he nevertheless caused some people to dislike him when he clapped back about the cheating scandal. Specifically, Correa got heated when he heard some people disparaging the Astros' 2019 successes, stating — quite emphatically — that the Astros were a talented team who had put cheating in their past. Though he probably thought what he was doing was the right thing, it didn't endear him to others, especially to Dodgers fans, whose team lost to a cheating Astros squad in 2017.

Kevin Durant talks trash

When talking about GOATs in the NBA, there are a few names who make the cut. While fans will undoubtedly be mentioning Michael Jordan or LeBron James, many like to throw Kevin Durant's name into the mix, especially those younger fans who didn't have the privilege of watching MJ play. Durant's skill is not to be trifled with: His stats do speak for themselves, as well as his ability to lead teams to championships, but along with all of that success, and the supporters who come with it, also comes detractors.

Durant has the skills to back up a lot of his troll-ish behavior, but there are some who think the baller's taken it a step too far a few times. He's known for his antics both on the court and off, sometimes taunting those he goes up against while in the paint, per Sportskeeda. Those actions have become polarizing on social media, especially Twitter, with many wondering if Durant would have the same confidence against some of the bigger names in the NBA. Others, however, love his attitude and think — because he's only going after fellow ball players — he's more than allowed to challenge others on the court in whatever way he sees fit. Of course, there's something to be said for subtly, which would perhaps make Durant a less polarizing player, should he keep some of his thoughts to himself.

Conor McGregor elicits a strong response

From just about the moment Conor McGregor engaged in his first bout of MMA fighting, he's been a controversial figure in sports. The Irishman grew up poor and was on welfare, per Complex, so when he won his first purse, he was undoubtedly happy. What some saw as bragging, others understood was relief and happiness at no longer struggling to achieve the life he dreamed of for so long. However, while there were those who appreciated McGregor's skills, there's a reason he's called "The Notorious" and he certainly lives up to the moniker. Taking the position of the bully, McGregor wasn't shy about trash-talking his opponents on both sides of a fight, trying to psych them out prior to their meeting, then tweeting a bevy of sarcastic memes if they lost. And of course, if he lost, he'd just brush it off, assuring fans he'd be back better than ever.

This bravado and bullish behavior have caused many MMA fans to root for McGregor's downfall instead of his success. Even more, it's caused McGregor's notoriety to extend beyond the Octagon, as the fighter is familiar with getting into trouble on social media, specifically Twitter. Some of McGregor's comments are still surprising fans, leaving many people to wonder if he's ever going to change his ways as he gets older. But as fellow UFC fighter Alexander Volkanovski told LowKick MMA, McGregor's gotten away with a lot worse and thrives on the controversy.

Kyrie Irving's fallen off the edge

Anybody who's been keeping an eye on the NBA — or just Twitter trending topics — is probably aware of the controversy surrounding Kyrie Irving. There's no denying he's talented; his stats show just how capable he is, and his ability to work well with other superstars, like Kevin Durant, has earned him a large swath of fans from Cleveland (where he won his first championship) to Brooklyn. Unlike his fellow Nets star, though, Irving's actions on the court speak for themselves and gather him more fans than haters. However, his actions in his personal life have caused many to dislike him.

Irving is no stranger to speaking his mind, and he raised a few eyebrows with his comments on the Earth being flat, which he later apologized for. But that was just the beginning. When the NBA advocated for all of their players to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and when New York state mandated vaccines, Irving began liking conspiracy theory posts about it, per Rolling Stone, and his refusal to be vaccinated meant he was ineligible to play in Nets home games. That wasn't the last time a conspiracy theory would get him in trouble, either. In 2022, Irving posted a link to a video that was considered to be antisemitic, and, although he apologized, he did not say he, himself, wasn't antisemitic, as seen on Twitter. Needless to say, these various controversies have led many to disavow him, though some fans still support him.

Odell Beckham Jr.'s sideline shenanigans

Although quarterbacks seem to get the most attention on a football team, players in other positions have also courted their fair share of controversy, including wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. There's no denying Beckham's skill, and his incredible rookie season with the New York Giants (including that one-handed catch) propelled him to the forefront of many media and fan conversations. Along with his improbable catches and the ability to score touchdowns was his flamboyant personality, which also put him front and center in several discussions. Beckham engaged in his fair share of end zone dances, as well as sideline frustrations, famously head-butting and then proposing to a piece of equipment.

But with all of that attention also comes scrutiny, and people were quick to throw Beckham under the bus when any of his teams didn't perform well. In fact, some fans went so far as to state that Beckham and his large personality were more of a distraction to a franchise than an asset, and his famous disagreement with then-Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield led to him being released early from his contract. Injuries have also plagued his career, so while fans are certainly more than hopeful that he'll find his way back to the NFL, others, including former players, are more than willing to state Beckham should stay far away from their teams, for fear of him not being able to perform adequately.

Bryce Harper has a temper

There's probably no one as controversial in baseball as of this writing as Bryce Harper. The former Washington Nationals player (who's now with the Philadelphia Phillies, a move that's led to his polarization among certain fans even more) has definitely earned at least some of his bad-boy reputation. The right fielder has gotten into numerous altercations on the baseball diamond, including a fight with a member of his own team, per Pitcher List. He's been intentionally hit by opposing teams' pitchers and has endured boos and chants of "overrated" from his own team's supporters, as well as fans from the other side. Harper's incredibly high salary (the Phillies signed him to a 13-year, $330 million contract) has led many to be overly critical of him, and whenever he doesn't perform well, people state he's overhyped and not worth the money.

On the flip side, Harper's stats show that he might be worth that high price tag. Although he doesn't have the traditional great numbers of past star ball players, he has scored trips to the All-Star game and was the National League's Rookie of the Year. While the Phillies lost to the Houston Astros in Harper's first World Series appearance, he's shown no signs of slowing down and has contributed to Philadelphia's success. Fans of his are quick to point out that, when he does make contact while at bat, he scores big, which is enough for them.

Joel Embiid plays differently

There are a lot of positives when it comes to Joel Embiid. For starters, the center has spent his entire (albeit injury-plagued) career with the Philadelphia 76ers, earning him loyalty points from Philly fans. He's also proven to be quite adept at his job, with his stats showing him as the highest-scoring center since Shaquille O'Neill in 2000. He also had a great rookie season and was the runner-up for the league's MVP in the 2021-2022 season. Additionally, Embiid is quite adept at drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line. The first 76ers to make the All-Star team since Jrue Holiday in 2013, Embiid is clearly someone for Philly fans (and fans of the game in general), to rally around.

However, that skill at the free throw line has also made Embiid somewhat controversial. Fans don't love the new way the NBA has been handing out fouls and think players who draw many — like Embiid and James Harden — are messing with the way the game is meant to be played. Additionally, the 76ers center hasn't exactly endeared himself to other players and other teams' fans. With his skills comes a fair amount of ego, which is to be expected, but Embiid hasn't always only let his skills do the talking. He's engaged in his fair share of trash-talking, which even he himself has said he needed to reduce.