Last spring, every media outlet in North America—from the Hamilton Spectator to Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel—called Carolina Hurricanes captain Ron Francis the most underrated player in hockey. That is, every media outlet save ESPN, whose Barry Melrose called Francis the most underrated player in hockey history. Francis is one of countless athletes who have made reputations, fortunes—entire careers-out of being underrated. In the 1970s Oakland A's outfielder Joe Rudi became famous as the Most Underrated Player in Baseball, a phrase that always appeared next to his name, in the manner of "Panamanian strongman" (Manuel Noriega) or "Somali warlord" (Hussein Mohammad Aidid). All of which raises the question: When you're universally heralded for being unheralded, renowned for being unknown, highly rated as underrated...are you?
What, pray tell, is wrong with having others think better of you than is merited? Isn't this one of humankind's more touching traits—that even the world's most irredeemable jackass is lavishly praised at his own funeral? (For what is a eulogy but life's final, most fulsome overrating?) So what if Notre Dame and the Dallas Cowboys and Anna Kournikova are seldom as good as people think they are? None of us are. But we don't tell one another that. In America you're innocent until proven guilty, great until proven lousy. You get the benefit of the doubt. In sports, as in life, tie goes to the runner.