Tom Brady seemed like a pretty good guy. An unheralded backup who skyrocketed to stardom with the Patriots, Brady spent most of his time looking good next to Gisele and making Kevin Faulk look good in a backfield. He even helped his understudy Matt Cassel swindle the Chiefs out of millions of dollars after sitting out the 2008 season. That is, until Brady bared his teeth and showed his aggressive side with an aggressive slide. His intensity and competitiveness was foreshadowed earlier last season, when he spiked the ball hard enough to light the tower and win a prize at the fair in a loss against the 49ers.
Brady’s anger isn’t surprising; that it took this long to manifest itself is. Across pro sports, transcendent stars share many of the same traits: deranged competitiveness, lack of empathy, unyielding chip on their shoulder, resentment of lesser teammates, vengeful, calculated dealings with media, and unflinching self-belief to the point of delusion. These are traits of a sociopath, and that may be what it takes to become a superstar.
Kobe Bryant brings the tenacity of a warrior on the court, and the drama of Bad Girls Club off of it. He would rather dish on Smush Parker than dish the rock in crunch time; his feuds with Shaq, Andrew Bynum, Dwight Howard, and the Lakers organization have been widely circulated. The Black Mamba is a win-at-all-costs competitor with a venomous bite. This season, Mamba’s been trying to shed that skin, launching a social media offensive an an effort to rebrand Bryant as a candid but lovable elder statesman of the game. He realized that his legacy, as his team fell apart around him, was creakier than his knees, and Kobe made the calculated decision to shelf the beef and display some humility. He’s even taken up a new hobby: passing.
At the 2005 NFL draft, we watched the Berkeley boy abandoned by the local team. Fans saw him stewing for hours, a slow burn under the bright spotlight of national television. Aaron Rodgers went 23 picks later than expected, and ended up in the shadow of a legend. Brett Favre, an egotistical competitor with petty beef of his own, refused to tutor his understudy, saying “It’s not my job.” Rodgers watched, learned, replaced, and usurped, leading the Packers to a Super Bowl win that Favre tried to diminish, attributing the success to the supporting cast. Rodgers parlays snubs into success; he’s extremely sensitive about his height (6’2” is a bit undersized for a quarterback), snipping at fans who mention it on both a 60 Minutes segment and an E:60 profile.
Kevin Durant is a soft-spoken, physically weak scorer who is so nice that Nike is running a campaign trying to dispel it as a myth, with commercials in which the guy who can’t press 185 lbs is wanted for felony dunking. When a mass-market corporate entity insists you’ve got an edge, you know you’re too nice. But does a nice guy share the NBA lead in technical fouls? Durant is in a dead heat for the “Rasheed Wallace Trophy” with 6’11”, 270 lb infant DeMarcus Cousins, the always genial Kobe, All-Stars Blake Griffin and Carmelo Anthony, and…Matt Barnes. If you need any more convincing, Durant has tattoos, he looks like he just got paroled. People say Durant isn’t assertive enough to be a leader, that he’ll never match LeBron James, that he can’t pick up the load without James Harden. Durant channels all of that into motivation; he’s Ryan Gosling in Drive, a seething, stone-cold reactionary with a vicious sting.
Ray Lewis teeters in this weird space between “almost assuredly a murderer” and “could have been an influential Baptist preacher in the 1960s.” Lewis is a man of intense passion; he danced his way out of the tunnel, cried during the national anthem, and motivated his team with inspiring rhetoric–and that’s just before games. Lewis refused to succumb to the limiting advice of trained medical professionals, rushing his way onto the field for the playoffs without consideration of further bodily damage. He may have consumed deer antler in his quest to return faster, the absolute manliest method of cheating. Now that Lewis’ time as a Raven is nevermore, his legacy is as a great leader who did some terrible things. The same could describe both Hitler and Alexander the Great.
If LeBron is in touch with reality, when his camp proposes that he humiliate his home city on national television, he might stomp the brakes. When they say, “surround yourself with Make-a-Wish kids who don’t know how to react,” he might understand that the gesture cushions the blow to Clevelanders as much as putting on a UFC glove before a Liddell uppercut. LeBron never wanted to be the villain—in his formative years he was unselfish to a fault— but when it happened, he channeled the hate into inspiration to win, and it culminated in an inspired NBA Finals.
During his career, Michael Jordan managed to be more fierce than Kobe and make a worse decision in his prime than LeBron. Rumors abound that Jordan was forced out of the league by David Stern because of his gambling problems. Two things I’m obligated to point out: Isn’t it ironic that Jordan ended up with the Chicago White Sox, the organization synonymous with gambling in sports? And second, Jordan is terrible at everything he’s done, besides basketball. He’s an awful gambler and bad at golfing. His batting average was below the Mendoza line. In running the front office of the Wizards, he committed the unpardonable sin of drafting Kwame Brown. As part owner, he’s somehow made the Charlotte Bobcats even worse than he found them. And the guy is clueless when it comes to fashion.
Jordan always attacks modern players; he’s the lion atop the hill who relishes the opportunity to thwart all comers. His Hall of Fame acceptance speech, a time reserved for graceful reflection, was boastful and unapologetic, a forum for Jordan to lord over us once again. He highlighted every hater throughout his life, showcasing the extend of his many grudges. Wright Thompson‘s fantastic ESPN profile revealed that Jordan is obsessed to returning to his playing weight, nursing a delusion that he could return at 50. It’s also revealed that Jordan believes his father preferred his older brother over him, which he repackaged as motivation to prove himself. Jordan is intensely, freakishly loyal; he’s cut up friends’ closets that weren’t sporting Nike, and judges a person by the brand on their shoes before every conversation. He’s Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, a basketball savant who can’t behave normally in social situations.
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites the 10,000 hour rule as a metric of success: If you want to become great at something, you need to practice it for at least 10,000 hours. By this logic, I have officially mastered the Chinese buffet. Statistically, every athlete that makes it to the pros is already an outlier. To be an anomaly among anomalies, it takes extra drive and a singular focus. Those 10,000 hours have to be fueled by slights: Too short, too soft, can’t win the big one, not daddy’s favorite, too deep of a hairline. They’re great at pulling strings and winning rings. The sports world’s best and brightest are sociopaths, and it’s time we embrace the traits that make them great.