Sports Stars That Are Nothing Like They Seem

To fans, athletes are more than just a name and a face. We have been a part of celebrating their greatest achievements and also witnessed some of their lowest moments on our television screens. Outside of watching them compete on the field, court, pool, or in the arena, we've gotten glimpses of the person under the uniform, and it gave us another reason to cheer them on. For some athletes, their biggest opponent isn't just someone on another team; it's a group of people -– the media. 

The media's perception of them has sometimes been inaccurate and has painted these athletes as something they're not. Instead of presenting them as multifaceted people, they're either cast as a villain for one minor mistake or painted as America's sweetheart when that's far from the truth. Let's take a look at some of the most famous sports stars who are nothing like they seem.

Shaquille O'Neal is a villain with a heart

Shaq is one of the most legendary players in the NBA. In his 19 years playing professional basketball, his on-court persona was competitive, vicious, threatening, and oftentimes provoking toward his opponents. His big size and fierceness earned him the title of the most dominant player in the game. Throughout his NBA career, we've seen plenty of controversial moments, from fistfights on the court to the most dramatic feud with teammates like Kobe Bryant. O'Neal was never one to bite his tongue or turn the other cheek. When he hung up his jersey in 2011, fans everywhere began to view him in another light. Off the court, he's not so intense, vicious, or difficult. 

As he took on the job as a basketball commentator for TNT, he's gotten a chance to show us the real Shaq. O'Neal is a goofy guy unafraid to poke fun at himself and laugh at his career lowlights. Not only does he charm fans, but he also is known as someone who never forgets to give back to those in need. In 2021, the basketball legend went viral for helping a young man at a jewelry store pay for his engagement ring. For Christmas 2021, O'Neal celebrated big by gifting 500 kids presents they'll never forget -– PS5's, Nintendo Switches, bikes, toys, and much more. When asked about his good deeds, he said, "I'm into making people happy. Whenever I leave the house, I just try to do a good deed" (per Today). He went from the angry hulk to an oversized Santa Claus.

Marshawn Lynch's silence speaks volumes

When NFL star Marshawn Lynch famously said, "I'm just here so I won't get fined," he'd already started to gain a reputation for being too serious and egotistical. As he began to frequently skip mandated interviews, the NFL and the sports media quickly labeled Lynch as a difficult athlete who thinks he's above the rules. Lynch's refusal to speak to the media didn't come from a lack of respect, but a lack of trust. He once told reporters, "I don't know what story y'all trying to get out of me. I don't know what image y'all trying to portray of me. But it don't matter what y'all think, what y'all say about me because when I go home at night, the same people that I look in the face — my family that I love, that's all that really matter to me." 

Just because Lynch gave the cold shoulder to journalists doesn't mean he was distant when it came to fans. In real life, Lynch is known as a pillar to his community who always gives back. In 2020, another clip of Lynch went viral, but this one showed Lynch and teammate Richard Sherman on the sidelines discussing their holiday plans. Lynch enthusiastically mentioned that he'll be spending his Thanksgiving giving back, inspiring Sherman to want to tag along. 

During his time in the NFL, he may have forked over $300,000 in fines, but he's still helping others today. He's donated medical masks and traveled to Hawaii to donate over 200 turkeys to residents, proving that sometimes actions speak louder than words.

Is Cristiano Ronaldo really 'self-centered'?

Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the most famous sports stars on the planet. He was the first person on Instagram to reach 300 million followers. He's a global superstar with plenty of accomplishments to his name. But all those accomplishments and admirers don't come without plenty of criticism and controversy. As a player, Ronaldo is considered by some to be an egotistical sore loser who treats his teammates poorly

His post-game interviews have gone viral because of comments that come off extremely arrogant. That perceived arrogance is something he admits has hurt his career, telling CNN, "I'm a competitive man and sometimes people interpret that in a different way, which is a pain on me because I don't like it, but I have to live." Ronaldo says the real him is a family man who is still competitive but likes to have fun. Off the field, he's also known as someone who gives back to those in need and has used his platform to support important causes around the world. For a man labeled as "self-centered," he was actually crowned the World's Most Charitable Sports Star in 2015.

Naomi Osaka didn't talk to the media for a specific reason

Since winning her first Grand Slam in 2018, Naomi Osaka became a superstar that the media and fans loved. But as the newbie became more well-known and outspoken, the perception of Osaka changed. Fans and the media challenged her outspokenness about mental health and considered her immature, entitled, and overly sensitive. Journalists took great offense to Osaka's media boycott which led to her withdrawing from the 2021 French Open. Before withdrawing from the match, Osaka was fined for refusing to speak to the media. In an Instagram post, Osaka went into detail about how press conferences can negatively affect a player's mental health.

"I've watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room and I know you have as well," Osaka wrote. "I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they're down and I don't understand the reasoning behind it." Her calls for mental health awareness were ignored as she was accused of being unable to handle criticism and the responsibilities of being a star athlete. 

Since then, Osaka has attempted to participate in press conferences but still has found it difficult. In August 2021, she broke down in tears after a reporter questioned her balancing mental health and press obligations.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

The intense Russell Westbrook is a Swiftie

NBA star Russell Westbrook is always going viral for his on-the-court antics. When you see him trash-talking former teammates, finding himself in scuffles, or being no-nonsense in his post-game interviews, you'll notice he's a competitive athlete. Westbrook's relationship with the media has always painted him as a moody, over-the-top competitor who's not approachable and a terrible teammate. This reputation is not something he's unaware of. Through all the criticism, Westbrook considers himself misunderstood. "Where do you want me to start? Listen, I think the underlining thing about that is 90 percent or 100 percent of it is not even true. A lot of times, the things that are made up are by people that don't actually know me to be able to say anything about me or what I'm about, or what I believe in," he said (per NBC Sports).

In real life, Westbrook isn't always scowling. He's an unashamed Taylor Swift super fan and a wholesome family man who spends his days off singing Kidzbop tunes with his little ones. Even though some competitors and journalists view him as abrasive, he was one of the most well-liked athletes to enter the NBA bubble at Disneyland. USA Today reported that Westbrook left an $8,000 tip and a thank you note for the housekeepers.

Kawhi Leonard is actually a fun guy

NBA player Kawhi Leonard is a bit of a mystery. The two-time NBA champion is known for being one of the most talented players in the sport but also known for being a man of few words and zero emotions –- except for his viral laugh. Sports media has always considered him a loner whose blank facial expression always reads as unimpressed or bored. Contrary to media reports, Leonard's teammates have declared the opposite. They frequently describe him as someone who's funny and down-to-earth behind the scenes. Though the rest of the world might see him as robotic and shy, the people around him all confirm one thing: Leonard wasn't lying when he famously told the world he's a fun guy. 

Teammate Paul George offered some insight into Leonard's personality. "What you see is what you get with Kawhi ... He does all the things that you would want your guy to do ... Works hard, great teammate, great locker room guy. He actually does talk. He's a fun guy. The legend's true" (per Bleacher Report). Former teammate Lou Williams commented on the "robotic" and mysterious perception of Leonard. In an interview with Bleacher Report, he said, "When it comes to Kawhi, I realized that because he does such a great job at being in control of what's said about him, that when people don't have the access that they want to him, they just create whatever they want to create and he doesn't combat any of it." So maybe Leonard only saves his jokes for the locker room.

Sean Avery is hockey's ice-cold villain

Each time Sean Avery hit the ice, controversy would follow him. The entertaining and brutal sport of hockey took exception to Avery's antics and even developed new rules to limit him on the ice. He's previously faced fines for altercations on the ice and suspensions for insensitive comments about ex-girlfriends off the ice. His 2017 autobiography, "Offside: My Life Crossing the Line," detailed all of his gripes with the NHL, his controversial mistakes, and even detailed his past troubles in relationships.

He states that though he's not trying to rehabilitate himself from the "troublemaker" title that has followed him, he is trying to give a more balanced view of himself instead of being a "hate-filled wrecking ball." Since officially retiring from hockey in 2012, the current podcaster has been outspoken about a number of things, including homophobia in sports. In 2011, he was one of the first pro athletes in America to speak out in support of gay marriage. Sports fans everywhere were shocked to hear that a guy who usually spews words that start brawls was actually using his voice for good.

J.R. Smith went from a rule-breaker to student-athlete

J.R. Smith is a basketball player that had a bad-boy image with plenty of controversial and meme-able moments throughout his career. In the past, he's famously been a party boy, frequent NBA rule-breaker, and a trash talker. Fans watched him get fined and suspended, all the way up to becoming a champion. In 2016, after reaching his goal of winning a championship, an emotional Smith took to the podium in tears, discussing the sacrifices his parents made for him, singling out his father: "To hear people talk bad about me, it hurts me because I know it hurts him and that's not who I am. I know he raised better and I know I want to do better."

The two-time NBA champ has left pro ball behind and is now on a campus living life as a student-athlete. Fans were amazed that the guy they nicknamed "Henny God" (after the drink Hennessy) is now just a regular college student that tweets about passing his exams and what he learned in class that day. As Smith ventures on this new path, he's opened up about how much he hates the old "Henny God" nickname. Leaving an Instagram comment on the HouseofHighlights page, Smith wrote that he finds the joke disrespectful: "As a Black man in American you still can't move on from the bulls*** that people continue to put on your name! Not one positive post about going to school and trying to better myself!" Smith seems eager to leave the old perceptions of him in the past.

Odell Beckham Jr. is the NFL's misunderstood superstar

When Odell Beckham Jr. first entered the NFL, he quickly shot to fame. He was just as recognizable in his uniform as he was walking down the street. His famous one-handed catch and signature blond locks were seen everywhere. He was theatrical on the field, dancing after every touchdown, which rubbed old-school football fans the wrong way. The NFL wasn't necessarily happy with this over-the-top persona, leading to various fines.

Beckham has been adamant that he's only human and bound to make mistakes, but others say there's more to the story. In an interview with the Daily News, Michael Irvin alleged that Beckham's image and level of fame have caused him to be a target on the field, saying, "For some reason, everybody goes after him with gay slurs. He's a different kind of dude. He has the hairdo out, he's not the big muscular kind of dude. The ladies all love him. He's a star. I wonder why people are going in that direction. It blows my mind."

But Beckham feels he's just misunderstood. In 2019, he told GQ, "My on-the-field football never gets talked about unless people are talking about antics. They don't talk about numbers. Where's the reel at? People only want to focus on one thing. I feel like I'm one of the only people in the NFL where my personal life and my brand are the only things that get talked about. "

Bryce Harper is baseball's favorite bad boy

For many baseball fans, Bryce Harper is someone they all love to hate. Since he entered the spotlight, Harper has rubbed people the wrong way with giving controversial interviews, showboating during games, and being an instigator on the field. His over-the-top, flashy style of play has not been welcomed with open arms in the traditional world of baseball. To Harper's credit, he's welcomed the villain title from fans with enthusiasm, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer, "It's just my desire to play in front of fans and love the boos and the hate a little bit. I've been hearing it since I was 12 or 13 years old, so it's kind of normal. That's sports. That's fan bases." 

Behind the scenes, not everyone hates his flashy style of play. Teammate Brandon Kintzler said he's grown to understand why Harper is the way he is: "You never know what these superstars are like. Sometimes they're arrogant and cocky and come off as not good teammates. But he's a very genuine teammate. You just get the fact that the guy wants to win. The guy wants to win so bad that people hate him. If he didn't want to win, people would probably like him."

Harper isn't really a villain. However, he embraces the role not because he loves to instigate, but simply because he respects the competitive nature of the sport. His flashy style of play isn't to disrespect his competitors either –- Harper just wants to express himself in a sport that doesn't seem to love self-expression.

Serena Williams' on- and off-court personas

Serena Williams rightfully deserves the title of G.O.A.T. She is one of the most accomplished, dominant players tennis has ever seen. She's never shied away from being vocal on or off the court. That fearless attitude is something that some have never grown comfortable with. Over the years, Williams has faced harsh criticism and alleged racism. One moment that stirred up headlines was her U.S. Open match with Naomi Osaka in 2018. Fans watched a heated exchange between Williams and the umpire as she defended herself against accusations of cheating, finally exploding in anger. Williams was accused of displaying poor sportsmanship and was instantly vilified. 

In 2021, after losing to Osaka again — this time in the Australian Open — Williams took to Instagram with a moving message for her fans, writing in part: "I am so honored to be able to play in front of you all. Your support — your cheers, I only wish I could have done better for you today. I am forever in debt and grateful to each and every single one of you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I adore you."

Off court, Williams' Instagram page frequently features her and daughter Alexis Olympia sporting matching outfits. Her maternal role certainly seems to bring out a soft side of Williams that spectators don't see during a match. She told Today Parents, "As an athlete, you can't be vulnerable. You have to be strong. As a mom, you're completely vulnerable to everything. And that's what makes it scary."

Metta Sandiford-Artest's antics were legendary

Formerly known as Ron Artest, also formerly known as Metta World Peace, and now going by Metta Sandiford-Artest – he will go down in history as the most misunderstood athlete in the NBA. His on-the-court outbursts are like no other. Who can forget the infamous Malice at the Palace? Or the elbow to James Harden's head? The NBA decided to make an example out of him and handed him an 86-game suspension and a $5 million fine. Teams viewed him as a loose cannon, but seeking counseling wasn't common during his era. "I was ahead of my time," he told the New York Post. "Back then, the media was like, 'Oh, he's crazy. He's not ready to play at that level.' Now the media is saying, 'Get this person help.'"

He refused mental health support earlier in his career due to the stigma. It wasn't until 2010 that he opened up about his struggles and even thanked his psychiatrist after winning his first NBA Championship. 

The older and much wiser Sandiford-Artest no longer felt the need to privately deal with his struggles, telling ESPN, "I'm not afraid to improve myself spiritually, emotionally, economically. I'm not afraid to take on that challenge. And I'm not afraid to share with anybody else, because we're not the only ones going through it." In 2021, when Netflix recounted the infamous Malice at the Palace brawl, viewers saw Sandiford-Artest in a different light, seeing that it was less about him acting "crazy" and more about an athlete who was struggling with mental health.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Brett Favre is now the all-American bad guy

Brett Favre's reputation as the loveable All-American football star didn't last for long. Sports media and fans have always loved his style of play and characterized him as a great guy on and off the field. The tides started to turn when he first retired in 2007. As Favre quickly changed his mind, his former team wasn't so keen on bringing back the aging football star. His ego took a hit, and he lashed out at the Green Bay Packers for picking Aaron Rodgers over him.

In 2010, Favre was also involved in a sexting scandal with a fellow member of the Jets organization, Jenn Sterger. He reportedly sent her numerous flirtatious messages, voicemails, and unwanted nude pictures. Not only did Sterger find the scandal "humiliating," but this all occurred while Favre's wife had breast cancer. The NFL fined him $50,000 for his behavior during the incident and for not cooperating during their investigation. Instead of coming out on the other side of these scandals with humility, he instead still finds a way to stay in the news by criticizing current players and golfing with controversial former President Donald Trump.