Why we love to hate sport’s anti-he­roes

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Fi­nal whis­tle Jim White

When it comes to list­ing the most pop­u­lar win­ners over the 120 years of the US Open, it is un­likely Bryson DeCham­beau would make any­one’s top 20. In truth, he would strug­gle to find a place in the top 120.

The re­ports from the week­end tour­na­ment, as the Amer­i­can bru­talised the Winged Foot course with his mus­cle­man drives and his hack-and-thrash clear­ances from the rough, brought new def­i­ni­tion to the term “grudg­ing re­spect”. Sure, he won hand­somely. But this is not a man whose suc­cess is en­joyed much be­yond the con­fines of his own front room. When he comes out on top, the bunting re­mains in its box in the at­tic.

The rea­sons for such wide­spread dis­dain are many. His play is dis­missed as slow and self­ish. He is reck­oned to linger on shots de­lib­er­ately to dis­turb op­po­nents. He be­rates cam­era­men who film him on the greens. Ed­die Pep­perell summed up his rep­u­ta­tion in the locker room by de­scrib­ing him as “a sin­gle-minded twit” who “doesn’t much care for oth­ers”.

But here is the irony of DeCham­beau: far more of us are aware of who won this year’s US Open than if one of golf ’s many bland Mr Nice Guys had man­aged to out­smart his rocket-pro­pelled tee shots to take the ti­tle. Be­cause, in sport, noth­ing gar­ners at­ten­tion like no­to­ri­ety.

The his­tory of our games is lit­tered with those we love to hate; anti-he­roes who pro­vide us fans with ready jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for sup­port­ing their ri­vals.

For all its self-polic­ing codes of de­cency, golf has never been short of such fig­ures. DeCham­beau him­self has only re­cently claimed the ti­tle of Most Dis­liked Man in the Club­house from his com­pa­triot Pa­trick Reed, a Texan al­most as loud, brash and dis­taste­ful as John Daly’s trousers.

Since the days of John McEn­roe, ten­nis, too, has pro­vided a steady stream of play­ers who have the crowd loudly cheer­ing for their op­po­nent. Nick Kyr­gios, with his wheedling, whin­ing and whinge­ing, is but the lat­est. Though to be fair to the Aus­tralian,

This is not a man whose suc­cess is en­joyed much be­yond the con­fines of his own front room

at least his pro­nounce­ments dur­ing the pan­demic sug­gest he is more in tune with the need to be aware of the safety of oth­ers than the Covid-deny­ing anti-vaxxer No­vak Djokovic, a man whose fol­low­ers can some­how man­age to char­ac­terise an in­jury he in­flicted on a line judge by his care­less­ness as part of a wider con­spir­acy to do him down.

Box­ing also has long pro­vided its fol­low­ers with plenty of an­ti­heroes to make its he­roes look good. Floyd May­weather may have been one of the most ac­com­plished cham­pi­ons of all time, but he was hardly pop­u­lar. With his self­de­ter­mined nick­name of “Money”, his ugly dis­par­age­ment of op­po­nents, his lack of the ba­sic re­spect for oth­ers en­gaged in his bru­tal craft, he bor­rowed heav­ily from WWE in his self-pro­jec­tion. This was a pan­tomime vil­lain shame­less in his op­pro­brium.

But even he found a neme­sis in the lu­di­crous pos­tur­ing of Conor McGre­gor, the mixed mar­tial arts cham­pion. Their man­u­fac­tured meet­ing in 2017 pro­vided a new twist on the old nice-ver­sus-nasty nar­ra­tive by giv­ing us a con­test in which the over­whelm­ing wish was that, so un­pleas­ant were they, both con­tes­tants lost.

And, in the process, the pair made a for­tune.

In team sports, how­ever, the dy­namic is dif­fer­ent. In rugby, foot­ball and cricket, we em­brace the idea of the anti-hero, as long as he is our anti-hero. Sure, we love hat­ing op­po­nents’ bad guys, but the idea of hav­ing some­one in our team whom ri­vals loathe re­in­forces the us-against-them dy­namic that in­forms so much of the rit­ual of foot­ball sup­port.

The more Roy Keane, Vin­nie Jones, John Terry and their ilk wound up op­po­nents, the more their own fans loved them. Though right now, in these days of so­cially aware ac­tivist good guys, foot­ball’s stock of anti-he­roes is dwin­dling rapidly. A cou­ple of youth­ful Eng­land play­ers whose worst crime is dat­ing Ice­landic mod­els dur­ing lock­down is hardly in the Luis “Can­ni­bal” Suarez class when it comes to love/hate re­la­tion­ships.

Maybe there is a fu­ture for Bryson DeCham­beau. Once he has run out of fair­ways to by­pass, maybe he should turn his enor­mous frame to foot­ball. Let us be hon­est, who among us would not rel­ish hav­ing a self­ish, nasty bully that ev­ery­body else ab­so­lutely loathes lin­ing up in our team. Es­pe­cially one who rou­tinely wins.

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