Let us begin by acknowledging some truths. That losing is not fun, and that blaming it on someone else is the surest method of recovery. That people are always going to hate the guy who makes their team’s quarterback look like a lost child. That while it is fine and good to relish the success of one’s fellow man — in the gene pool and on the football field — the accomplishments/wealth/luck/good looks of other people can sometimes be annoying. That some things are not rational. And that some faces, through no particular offense of musculoskeletal layout, are just punchable.
Not everyone hates J.J. Watt. But if you’ve noticed an occasional gust of man, screw that guy whenever his name pops up — well, you’re not alone. Winning smile by winning smile, Watt is emerging as one of the NFL’s strangest villains — strange mostly because he’s about as un-villainous as they come.
To be clear: In some quarters of this country, you would probably be safer insulting someone’s mother. There are plenty of folks who cheered Texans head coach Bill O’Brien’s announcement on Monday that Watt, less than two months after having offseason back surgery, will play in Week 1 against the Bears. They point to his four trips to the Pro Bowl, his three AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, and his all-time franchise records for sacks (74.5) and forced fumbles (15). They say he will go down as a historically great defender.
There’s much to like about Watt off the field, too. He is a do-gooder par excellence, an enthusiastic fundraiser and frequent volunteer. He turned up at a Houston children’s hospital in a Batman costume and on Christmas Day. He started a charity, the JJ Watt Foundation, that raises money for youth athletics. The foundation’s annual star-studded softball game is wildly popular; this year’s edition — its fourth — raised nearly $2 million and drew more fans than some Astros games.
But that hasn’t stopped Watt hate from starting to spread. It turns out that many people detest Watt, and a not insignificant portion are mostly at a loss as to why. Over the past few seasons, as Watt has come to define the Texans, J.J.–bashing has become a sport unto itself. He has been mocked by NBC’s Mike Florio for his “false humility” and for “being a Kardashian.” He’s been called a phony and a fraud, the overeager bearer of other people’s good news. It is a truth universally acknowledged: J.J. Watt just grinds people’s gears. The question is: Why?
In the annals of sports hatred — and let’s accept that sports fandom is at least as much about hating the other guys as it is about loving your own team — there are many reasons to despise athletes. Maybe they’re a division rival with a knack for dashing your team’s hopes. Maybe they’ve insulted not just your team but your metro area and everything you stand for. Maybe they play the game the wrong way. Maybe they’re just jerks.
Watt isn’t a jerk. He doesn’t play the game the wrong way, and he’s committed little in the way of slander. He has, over the course of five dominant seasons, crushed his fair share of AFC South dreams — but Watt hatred goes far beyond that, burbling forth from some unseen well of resentment. He draws backlash because he’s the golden boy (ugh) who knows he’s the golden boy (ugh) and who — worst of all — is all too aware of how to get others to paint him that way (UGGHGUGHGUHGUGHHHHHH).
Watt is sometimes compared to Rob Gronkowski, and not in a positive way. Whereas Gronk’s public buffoonery and aw-shucks social media posts are taken as evidence that he’s the consummate frat bro, guileless and goofy and beloved far beyond Massachusetts borders, Watt’s efforts are perceived as proof of his artificiality. His well-spokenness can give the impression that his quotes are canned. “When it comes down to that moment, when it’s me against you, you know in your head whether you worked hard enough,” he told Robert Mays in 2014. “You can try to lie to yourself. You can try to tell yourself that you put in the time. But you know — and so do I.”
It’s a great quote — but who talks like that? Can you picture him reciting that spiel in the mirror, blue eyes locked on their reflection? The haters go further: Must he constantly let us know that he’s working out? Couldn’t he wear shirts that are slightly less tight? Can’t he stay out of the spotlight for one minute? Don’t you hate his stupid face?
And here’s what really drives people nuts: He seems to go out of his way for publicity. In the 2015 offseason, he announced he would live in a rustic cabin in order to get in touch with his roots. In May, he launched his own logo — and was roundly mocked. To top it off, there are his all-American good looks. The fact that even slicing open his stupid nose couldn’t worsen them, that a scar somehow made him more interesting. He talks about his post-NFL life in much the same way that a 12-year-old might, declaring he wants to be a movie star (oooh) or coach kids (awww) after he retires. (To that end, he had a bit role as — what else? — a children’s soccer coach in this summer’s Bad Moms.)
Watt is, by all accounts, an extremely nice guy. He is someone who gives back to the Houston community and a tremendous football talent; last month, ESPN ranked Watt no. 1 on its list of best NFL players for a second consecutive season. At 27, he has years ahead of him — on the field and in your news feed.
But he appears dangerously close to experiencing a Steph Curry Heel Turn™. Watt even has the same tendency as Curry to mindlessly play with his mouthguard. We all know what happened next.