In celebration of America’s birthday I have compiled a list of America’s most well known athletes. These are the most recognizable athletes in the country, and day after day millions of Americans watch them perform. They are ingrained in the public consciousness and are as popular off the field as they are on it. These are the athletes who we see in commercials, on the front covers of magazines, and on billboards all over the country. They are the ones who we most identify with and admire for defining what it means to be an American.
To make the list athletes must be born in the U.S. (sorry Albert Pujols & Rafael Nadal) and currently active in their sport (sorry Michael Jordan & Brett Favre). As an added qualification athletes must have strong reputations, meaning no record of arrest or steroid abuse or crazy ex-girlfriends. These athletes are experts at personal brand management and their tax returns show it. So without further ado here is my list, and as an extra bonus a few athletes who fell short.
Hey Tiger, are you smirking because you hooked the shot or because you missed this list?
Tiger Woods – Any other year and he’d be #1 on this list. But cheating on your super model wife and ending up in sex rehab tends to knock your image down a few notches, perhaps irrevocably. He still makes twice as much as anybody on this list, though.
Kobe Bryant – He’s as well known as anybody on this list, but his career isn’t filled with just accolades. There are those rape allegations to consider, plus his feud with Shaq that drove apart one of the greatest teams in pro sports.
Shaquille O’Neal – I wanted to put Shaq on this list, but it’s hard to consider somebody who only contributed 3.1 Win Shares (less than Delonte West – 3.3) last season with Cleveland to be a “great” athlete. He sure had a good run though!
Floyd Mayweather, Jr. – Do people even watch boxing?
Tom Brady – He was America’s sweetheart for a few years, but with the Patriots fading so is Brady. He also gets docked a few points for marrying Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen. Wait, isn’t that every American’s dream?
Derek Jeter – He is a role model for any future baseball player and brings an unrivaled amount of professionalism and dedication to the game. But he’s not even the most recognizable player on his team anymore. Sorry Jeter.
The NHL – Ryan Miller (aka “the best goalie in the world”) makes a compelling case after his heroic performance in the 2010 Olympics. But he plays a sport that nobody south of Washington D.C. really cares about. Maybe in another four years.
THE TOP 10
10. Landon Donovan – Hardly anybody knew who this guy was before he netted a game-winning goal against Algeria in the final minutes of America’s pool-clinching World Cup match. Since then the consensus best American soccer player in the world has never been more popular (including an appearance on the Daily Show). He’s near the end of his career but he makes the list for helping make soccer relevant again in the minds of Americans, at least temporarily.
9. Joey Chestnut – The highest ranked competitive eater in the world is now a 4-time champion at the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. There are few things more American than hot dogs, and Chestnut once ate 68 of them in 10 minutes (2009 Nathan’s). He gets bonus points for knocking off former record holder Takeru “Tsunami” Kobayashi and returning the throne of competitive eating to the U.S. where it rightfully belongs.
A hot girl in a bikini driving a fast car. What's more American than that?
8. Danica Patrick – I had to have at least one woman make this list and who better than Patrick? She’s the the first woman to compete in the IndyCar Series as well as the NASCAR Nationwide Series, and she’s pretty good too. She is also the spokeswoman for GoDaddy.com, the web hosting company that’s most well known for its raunchy commercials featuring eye-catching girls ripping their clothes off. Sounds American to me.
7. Dwight Howard – Howard is one of the funniest guys in the NBA and his warm personality has earned him wide acclaim among teammates, coaches, and writers. He is the best player on a very good Orlando Magic team, but he has yet to win anything. Maybe one day he can truly replace his predecessor – the real “Superman”, Shaquille O’neal.
6. Michael Phelps – He holds 14 Olympic gold medals, including a world-record 8 at the Beijing Games that earned him status as Sports Illustrated magazine’s Sportsman of the Year. He is the greatest swimmer of all time and might be one of the greatest Olympians of all time too. There was that whole ‘marijuana’ thing, but we’ll give the human fish a pass this time. After all, he’s still an American hero.
5. Dwayne Wade – Not much separates Wade from another NBA superstar further down this list. He is as good as they get and he has a championship ring to boot. Plus, he does those adorable commercials with Charles Barkley. Go Flash!
4. Peyton Manning – He is the NFL’s best quarterback, the sport’s top endorser, and one of football’s most charitable players. His active presence in the South during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina cemented his reputation as one of the country’s most popular figures.
You've earned yourself that smug look, Peyton. Lookin' good!
3. Phil Mickelson – With Tiger’s career shrouded in controversy, Lefty is now golf’s greatest star. He won the Masters this year and he is one of the world’s most heavily endorsed athletes with lucrative deals from Exxon, Rolex, Barclay’s, Callaway, and KPMG.
2. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – His father was a NASCAR legend and after his death the entire country united in support of Junior, who followed in his father’s legacy by becoming one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers and certainly its most popular (voted NASCAR’s most popular driver for the sixth straight year). He even drives a Chevrolet. Driving fast is a staple of American culture and nobody does it better than Earnhardt.
1. LeBron James – It should come as no surprise that the basketball superstar is #1 on this list. The man who this summer will forever alter the basketball universe is also America’s most well known athlete. He led the USA Basketball “Redeem Team” to a gold medal in the 2008 Summer Olympics, he is the reigning 2-time NBA MVP, and he is only just now entering his prime. If the United States of America was a monarchy, then LeBron James would undoubtedly be its King.