Originally, I was going to write two articles, i.e., separate lists of underrated and overrated athletes. I decided, however, against these two articles for several reasons: 1) they have been done before; 2) these lists seem very subjective; 3) I am not a big fan of overrated lists; and 4) it is often unclear how an athlete is actually "rated" by so-called experts, other players, coaches, serious fans, and casual fans. All sports fans have seen lists of underrated and overrated athletes in newspapers and sports magazines, and a quick search on the internet will produce access to several more lists. Several of the lists (or at least part of the lists) I thought were very inaccurate, and the fact that some athletes show up on both (!) lists confirms this. After all, logically, one of the lists has to be wrong (maybe both are wrong -- who knows). Now, I do not know for sure if the lists are inaccurate because I do not know for sure exactly how accurately any athlete is actually rated by the public. In addition, how an athlete is rated can be different, depending on who is doing the rating. For instance, experts, players, coaches, serious fans, and casual fans may all rank an athlete's abilities differently. So, when someone says that some athlete is underrated or overrated, I think it is important to ask three things: 1) underrated or overrated by whom?; 2) how do we know for sure if they are overrated or underrated?; and 3) if an athlete is underrated or overrated -- how did he or she get that way?
How a person ranks another person's ability in something, sports or otherwise, is always subjective. The likes, biases, and prejudices of the person doing the rankings will inevitably affect how they rank someone or something. This factor, coupled with the fact that it is often very unclear how a specific athlete is actually rated or whose rating we are talking about, makes a specific individual's list of underrated and overrated athletes practically meaningless. Harsh, but true. We need to have an accurate ranking of an athlete's abilities (based upon lots of informed votes), PLUS lots of lists of underrated and overrated athletes totaled together (again by informed people) before we begin to have any underrated and overrated lists that have any accuracy. (Numerous people are necessary to do the rankings and lists so that people's likes, biases, and prejudices will offset each other.) Now you know why I have never been a big fan of overrated lists -- they are often unfair and inaccurate. The same could be said, of course, about underrated lists, but at least those lists are meant as a compliment and not as an insult.
As noted above, how an athlete is rated can vary, depending on which of the five groups listed above is doing the rating. An athlete, for example, could be rated much higher by other players in the athlete's sport than they are by casual fans, and vice versa. Hence, assuming we figure out what an athlete's "true rating" actually is, some athletes could actually be overrated by some groups and underrated by other groups. What a mess! But, let us say that we actually get an accurate rating of an athlete's abilities and we agree, somehow, that our perceived ranking is a combination of the five groups above. Then, why do some athletes inevitably end up underrated and others end up overrated?
Not surprisingly, the answer to this question is not clear, however, (and also not surprisingly) I do have some theories. It is first important to note that athletes in team sports are more likely to be underrated and overrated than athletes in an individual sport. This is because an athlete's accomplishments in an individual sport stand on their own more clearly than an athlete's accomplishments in a team sport (for obvious reasons).
I think athletes get overrated when one or more specific things occur. First, when an athlete played a decent percentage of his career in a large market, especially New York. Large markets have greater media coverage, hence, the athlete's accomplishments become well-publicized. (If you are dying for examples, okay, but keep in mind I am not a big fan of labeling athletes as overrated.) Joe Namath, Joe DiMaggio, and Phil Rizzuto come to mind. (Although Joe Namath is talked about as being overrated so often and is on so many peoples lists, I wonder if he is starting to become underrated by some people. Just a thought -- I do not know if this is true.)
Second, when an athlete played on numerous championship teams. Same theory, the playoffs and championship games always get more publicity and, most importantly, television coverage. Incidentaly, this happens most often in basketball and, to a lesser extent, with the quarterback position in American football. At first, it may seem to be just the opposite, because in basketball, more than any other team sport (at least in the U.S.), a great player can influence his team's chances of winning a championship. However, sports fans are aware of this, hence, they put more emphasis on the number of championships won by a great basketball player when evaluating how great the player's career was. And sometimes, they put too much emphasis on this fact. An example of this is Bill Russell. While he may not be overrated if you polled all basketball fans (especially younger ones who might actually underrate him), the people who still think he is the greatest basketball player of all time because of his 11 championships (the most in NBA history) are overrating Russell and overemphasizing the championships his TEAM won. Michael Jordan (6 championships) is the greatest basketball player of all time, and it is pretty clear. The bottom line is that championships are won by teams, not individuals, and a single player can only influence the outcome of a game only so much.
Players only have so much control (before free agency, practically none) over how much talent is on the teams that they play with throughout their career. In baseball, a player has very little control over whether his team wins a World Series (although this would not be true if starting pitchers were physically capable of pitching every day). However, sometimes people forget about this fact and can overrate a player who played on a lot of championship teams (again, DiMaggio and Rizzuto are good examples). A quarterback in football, because of the uniqueness of the position, has a lot of influence over the outcome of a football game. However, he is still only one of 22 players on the field at any given time and plays less than 50% of the time. Contrast this to basketball, where a player is one of only 10 players on the court at any specific time, and a star player usually plays around 80% of the game (i.e., 40 of 48 minutes), often more in important, close playoff games. In addition, a star player in basketball may sometimes take one-third of his team's shots during a game and has to play both offense and defense. Hence, it is safe to say that a great basketball player has more influence than even a quarterback in football over whether his team wins a championship. Individual football players who do not play the quarterback position usually do not have a lot of influence over whether their team wins a championship, however, there are exceptions. A great quarterback's legacy is routinely judged by how many Super Bowls (or NFL championships for pre-1966 quarterbacks) "he" won. But, sometimes quarterbacks are given too much blame when a game is lost and too much credit for their teams winning NFL Championships (although probably not Otto Graham -- see below), especially Super Bowls, because of the almost unbelievable publicity and worldwide coverage of these games. (In addition, quarterbacks get more MVP Awards in Super Bowls than they deserve, because sportswriters and sportscasters get blinded by the importance of the position.)
Third, an athlete played well in the clutch, especially in championship games. While this is undeniably an important trait in any great athlete, sometimes these feats can overshadow an athlete's otherwise inconsistent career. An example of this is Reggie Jackson, who is overrated by the non-serious baseball fans.
Fourth, the athlete is currently playing. Obviously, because their feats are still fresh in people's minds and they were seen by everyone (i.e., the people currently doing the ratings), young or old.
Fifth, an athlete is physically attractive. No explanation is necessary here unless you are under the age of six, from another planet, or a Paris Hilton fan.
Sixth, the athlete has a charming personality. Almost everyone overrates people they like in life, and that includes athletes.
Seventh, an athlete is smooth, stylish, or just plain exciting to watch when he plays. This one, I think, is more complicated than it appears. Generally, when an athlete is pleasing to watch the person watching will like that athlete more and subconsciously rate him or her a little higher than he or she should be rated. However, when an athlete goes beyond stylish and into the realm of fancy, i.e., a "hotdog", now that athlete becomes overrated by the casual fan because that fan thinks, "wow (!), if he can do that he must be great." This concept becomes more complicated in the case of a very exciting player who is not necessarily fancy, but just very gifted athletically. The serious fan, in an attempt to display his perceived superior intelligence and knowledge, sometimes AUTOMATICALLY thinks of this type of athlete as being overrated because he "knows", more so than the casual fan, that being an exciting player to watch does not make that athlete great. The truth is actually somewhere in between, depending how fundamentally sound and consistent the athlete in question is when he performs. When an athlete is fundamentally sound and his stylish play does not affect his performance, I think the athlete becomes underrated by some serious fans who are misguided, but well-intended. For example, people who are not Michael Jordan fans think he is overrated because they think the casual fans overrate him because they were influenced by his spectacular dunks and drives to the basket. However, people who follow basketball closely know that Jordan was extremely fundamentally sound and probably the most consistent player in the history of the NBA. Hence, Jordan, ironically, is actually underrated by some people. However, an athlete who is fancy and not fundamentally sound deserves to be labeled as overrated. I do not know which athlete is the best example of someone who is overrated because they had "flash without substance", so I will just leave that thought up to you.
Eighth, the player excels offensively, and in relevant sports, is not a good defender. Lots of examples of this one -- fans and the media love players who score.
I refrained from giving you a definitive overrated athletes list for the reasons stated above, but I will talk about someone else's underrated list, because at least this is a positive list and, more importantly, the athletes on the list provide good examples of why and how athletes become underrated. (With the exception of Alex Rodriguez, all the athletes below that I use as examples were on the list.) ESPN Classic's "Who's #1: Most Underrated" series came out in 2006, and they listed and profiled 20 athletes, with Stan Musial coming in first and Otto Graham second. There were 9 baseball players, 4 football players, 3 basketball players, 2 boxers, 1 tennis player and 1 golfer. Notice that 16 of the athletes came from team sports and only 4 from individual sports (see above). Also notice that there are 9 (!) baseball players on the list. I do not think the only reason for this is because baseball is popular in the US -- otherwise there would probably be an equal number of football players (or close to it) on the list. I think it is because, as I alluded to above, baseball players have very little influence over whether their team wins a World Series. Hence, a baseball player could be truly great and not win any championships (unlikely in basketball). No championships, no publicity, and ultimately, no full appreciation of the player's talents.
Athletes get underrated when one or more specific things occur. (Not surprisingly, most of the reasons are the opposite of the reasons why athletes are overrated.) First, they play most or all of their career in a small market, and as a result they get less publicity and are seen by fewer people. Examples include baseball players Stan Musial and Hank Aaron, and basketball players George Gervin and Bob Pettit.
Second, they did not play on any (or maybe on only 1) championship teams for reasons already discussed. The same 4 players are still good examples and there are many more.
Third, a player does not perform well in the post-season and/or in the clutch. It is even worse if the athlete plays in New York, for example, Alex Rodriguez . While the player deserves to be criticized for not performing well at these times, sometimes the criticism is so intense that the player's career regular-season accomplishments start to become overlooked.
Fourth, the athlete played a long time ago and/or in the sport's infancy. It is hard to know for sure how great someone was if you never saw them play. Or, in some cases, never even heard of them. Good examples of this are football players Otto Graham and Don Hutson, baseball player Lefty Grove, Musial, and Pettit.
Fifth, a player is physically unattractive. I will leave any examples up to you for this one.
Sixth, the player had a not-so-charming personality. Again, this one is on you.
Seventh, the player was not-so-pleasing to watch. Players who are workmanlike and are not particularly stylish almost always get underrated, since they do not draw attention to themselves. Many of the players listed above would fall into this category, although certainly not Gervin or Rodriguez.
Eighth, a player is known more for his defense than his offense. Defense just does not get as much publicity and is not as glamorous. For example, basketball player Joe Dumars.
It is tough to know for sure if an athlete is actually underrated or overrated, and if he is, then why. Perhaps this article will clear things up a little. Or, perhaps not.
Mark D. Hauser