"You hate to play against him, but you'd love to have him on your team."
In one sentence, the very essence of the instigator is summarized beautifully. Every professional athlete on the face of the Earth has a role - whether it's as big as handling starting pitching duties in Game 7 of the World Series or being a domestique (the guy who cuts the air in front of the team's all-star) on a Tour de France cycling team, everyone has a specific task to complete or goal to achieve.
There's a certain type of athlete that is given one of the more amusing (but also potentially dangerous) roles on a team - the instigator. Instigators is usually the last word used to describe the job title; the words rat, puke, and other NSFW terms often come to mind first. They are called upon not to only score goals and play a defensive role, but also to get under the skin of the opposition's best players and knock them so far off their game that they forget what sport they are even playing - since they'll be too busy looking to take the head off the instigator in question.
Most instigators are able to get the job done with their words, leaving the saying "sticks and stone will break my bones, but words will never hurt me" at the door when it comes to professional sport. Some resort to more aggressive tactics, but the best instigators only need to get physical once the opponent they were trying to rattle finally cracks and begins to look for retribution.
There are plenty of these types of agitating individuals in sport today - just don't get annoyed while reading about them, as we aren't liable for any agitation you decide to take out on your computer screen.
16 Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Despite being one of the greatest and most electrifying footballers of the past decade, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has found a way to label himself as the player people love to hate. "Ibra" has shown time and time again that he has little to no use for the feelings or opinions of others, often doing anything and everything to get under the skin of opposing players, coaches and fans. Most recently, Ibrahimovic was caught on camera berating a media member for being "low budget" - another opportunity for him to prop himself up or simply put down his inferiors, but likely a bit of both.
15 Andrew Luck
Andrew Luck doesn't strike anyone as an instigator, at first glance. If it wasn't for a few opposing defensive players outing his on-field strategy to get under the skin of his opponents, no one would have a clue that Luck is one of the most effective instigators in the league.
Defensive lineman chase quarterbacks with the goal of getting in their head, and if they do it successfully the quarterback begins to rattled and hot-headed. This is exactly what defensive linemen want - an angry quarterback who would rip your head off if he could. Luck is not like most quarterbacks, though - he'll brush off a hit as if it was lint and then compliment his opponent for the shot. This often does the opposite of what linemen want; they'll either get angry themselves and lose focus, or they'll feel bad about hitting Luck as hard as they just did.
14 Steve Ott
For a long time, Steve Ott was far-and-away the NHL's top instigator. Ott would do anything and everything to get under the skin of his opponents, and is best known for his ability to chirp and yap an opponent into submission in virtually no time - sometimes within minutes of the game starting. His ability to aggravate extends to those on the bench (including opposing coaches), so you know he's doing something right when he's got the men in suits losing it on him as well.
13 J.R. Smith
J.R. Smith's demeanor and attitude alone seems to aggravate people enough as it is - he'll likely never be able to shake the immature, "problem child" image he's had attached to him since the first few years of his NBA career. Smith has found a way to piss opponents off on the court, too, going right after their weakness: their shoelaces. Smith untied opponents shoelaces three times, getting away with just a warning after the first two instances before getting slapped with a $50,000 fine for the third transgression.
12 Steve Smith
Steve Smith is one of football's few instigators - there's not much of a need for it that allows for violent contact on every single play - but he plays the role to perfection. In Carolina, he was the scrappy fireball who would let his emotions run rampant to the point of knocking out his own teammates. In Baltimore, he kept a bit of that persona while adding the role of villain and enforcer to his repertoire. He backs up the talk with the numbers, too, making him even easier for rival teams and fans to despise.
11 Patrick Kaleta
If you polled every hockey player in the NHL today as to who is the NHL's most hated player, you could practically guarantee that Patrick Kaleta would at least be in the top 5, if not first overall. Over the years Kaleta has solidified his role as an incredibly effective instigator, often goading even the most level-headed of opponents into his trap. He's also earned himself a reputation as something of a dirty player, which makes it much easier for opposing players to attack without much regret.
10 Joakim Noah
Unlike Luck, Joakin Noah looks and feels like the kind of guy who was born and raised to play the role of an instigator. Noah has always played the game with an edge, with a cockiness rivaled by few in the NBA today. He has a penchant for pissing off opponents and has found himself in the middle of enough skirmishes to last him the rest of career. He sometimes allows his emotions to get the best of him is his attempts to rile up opponents, but overall he's proven to be extremely effective in the role.
9 Maxim Lapierre
There aren't many people in sport who can aggravate as well as Maxim Lapierre does with a simple facial expression. Lapierre has never been a game-breaking talent, and has bounced around from team-to-team for the past couple of seasons, but he's managed to keep a regular spot in lineups wherever he's gone thanks to his skating and his ability to get steam coming out of opponents ears with his big mouth and evil, wicked grin that just about everyone in the league would love to smack right off his face.
8 Lance Stephenson
Lance Stephenson has always been a bit of an accosting figure, but he took his irritation game to a whole new level over his last two seasons with the Indiana Pacers, especially when they faced off against LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the playoffs. From blowing in LeBron's ear, to flopping, to eavesdropping on the Heat's huddles, Stephenson did just about anything and everything to try and get the vaunted Heat off their game - it almost worked, too.
7 Kevin Garnett
Kevin Garnett is perhaps the most fearsome of any of the instigators on this list. While most are diminutive in size and generally aren't into physical altercations, Garnett is the most likely of the bunch to go ahead and knock your block off if you try and fire back at him. This practically gives Garnett free-reign when it comes to instigating opponents, because he knows he can, for the most part, get away with it without having to worry about any real retaliation.
6 Luis Suarez
Luis Suarez uses an interesting tool to achieve his desired result when it comes to instigating his opponents - his teeth. Suarez has earned a reputation as a biter for the numerous chomping incidents he's had over the years; three times, to be exact (three times more than almost everyone to ever play pro soccer, to boot). He's taken a chunk out of Otman Bakkal, Branislav Ivanovic and Giorgio Chiellini, but perhaps the most aggravating thing about it all is that Suarez is quoted as saying "I know biting appalls a lot of people, but it’s relatively harmless" in his book.
5 Chris Neil
Chris Neil, like many before him, has made a living as not only an enforcer, but as an elite instigator. Neil has the look of a man you could hate for no reason, except he gives you plenty of reasons on a nightly basis. Neil is undoubtedly one of the most loved players in Senators history, but he's better known as one of the league's greatest villains across the rest of the NHL. Neil, like Kevin Garnett, is not too worried about the "repercussions," because he can also throw down with the best of them.
Pepe has an interesting way of instigating. Some have called it "being a wild animal" or "being absolutely crazy." Pepe would probably describe it otherwise, but it's hard to argue with some of the comparisons that have made over the years regarding his style of play. Pepe has a short fuse on the pitch, and has certainly pushed the boundaries of what kind of physical play can be allowed in a soccer game - but if you need someone to get under the skin of an opponent, Pepe is your guy.
2 Brendan Gallagher
Brendan Gallagher is beloved in Montreal. His smile is generally viewed as harmless and charming. When he's smiling on the ice, though, it usually means he's got an opponent fuming. The opposing he players he usually annoys are often much larger than him, but that won't stop Gallagher from essentially laughing in their faces, even if they have him in a headlock. Gallagher has established himself as a top-notch instigator, to the point where his presence anywhere near another's team crease will spark a melee.
1 Brad Marchand
The fact that Brad Marchand has earned a reputation as the NHL's top "rat" should say it all. Ever since he broke into the league, Marchand has been doing everything is his power to rattle his opponents. No one is safe from Marchand's antics - grinders or stars, upstanding players or the most ferocious of opponents, it doesn't matter. Along with teammate Milan Lucic, Marchand has reignited the former league-wide disdain for the Boston Bruins organization.