GOAT. The Greatest of All Time. This is a concept that many sports are familiar with. Most major sports journalists all over the world have attempted to devise their own ranking systems. Inevitably, however, each sport evaluated is torn apart by opposing sides in search of their greatest historical player. In some cases, a sole consensus is found. In others, it seems like a never-ending debate, up until the point where the next messiah of the sport comes along to throw their own name into the hat. But what is it that makes a player the mystical GOAT in their respective sport?
Among the major American sports, perhaps the most widely accepted GOAT comes from the NHL. Canadian center Wayne Gretzky, who has been dubbed “The Great One” by sportswriters, was immediately inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The NHL even retired his 99 jersey number. And what’s not to love? Gretzky won a record nine MVP awards and holds the record for most career NHL goals. Oh, and 59 other NHL records. It seems that Gretzky’s overwhelming statistical success has afforded him the title without a shadow of a doubt. This is despite only winning four championships.
In basketball, however, another strong consensus is found for ostensibly different reasons. Many pundits have branded Michael Jordan as the greatest to ever play the game, despite some writers suggesting that LeBron James is now in the discussion. Jordan went through two three-year stints of consecutive NBA championships for the Chicago Bulls (the streaks divided by only his brief retirement). He also racked up five MVP awards and 10 scoring titles. Despite this, Jordan doesn’t own the sport’s statistical records like Gretzky. Instead, many point to the era that Jordan played in. No one could match Bill Russell’s eleven championship rings, and no one played and dominated in an era as competitive as 90’s basketball. Jordan did and still boasted an untarnished finals record. Most basketball enthusiasts can agree that he possessed an unrivaled competitive instinct and drive to win.
Looking at these two sports reveals an ill-defined formula for determining who is the greatest. Consequently, finding the best is complicated in sports where there is no clear consensus. In baseball and football, for example, the positional fragmentation of each sport leads to a series of general trends that can arbitrarily value certain players over others.
In NFL Network’s “The Top 100: NFL’s Greatest Players,” a panel of players, coaches, executives, and reporters determined that wide receiver Jerry Rice was the best to play. However, this was met with widespread criticism. Many articles were written in disagreement with the NFL Network, arguing that other players like Joe Montana and Jim Brown were more appropriate GOATs. With football, however, the distinct positions on the field are inherently judged differently. Typically, lists tend to not rank many defensive players and place more importance on the quarterback than any other position. This is perhaps justified, as power given to the quarterback is unparalleled to any other position in the team-oriented sport. After his latest successful Super Bowl campaign earlier this year, many concluded that Tom Brady had cemented his position as the sport’s best ever. Although he doesn’t dominate NFL records, his five Super Bowl rings are noted as his defining career achievement.
Baseball tends to separate pitchers and other players who are judged on batting performance. And, like football, baseball does not have their clear-cut GOAT. If there were to be one, perhaps the most popular would be Yankees left-hander and homer-smacking legend Babe Ruth, who completely shattered many hitting records at the time. An additional complexity to the baseball GOAT discussion is that the careers of many potential competitors to Babe Ruth, like that of Barry Bonds, have been muddled and tarnished by the presence of PED scandals.
A sport like soccer, which has leagues in virtually every country on the planet, is even more difficult to judge. In earlier years, the World Cup would be the only stage on which the world’s best stars could compete against each other. It is perhaps for this reason that Brazilian Pelé is often dubbed the sport’s greatest, even though he never competed in Europe’s competitive leagues. With Europe increasingly poaching the best stars from South America and Africa, club soccer now takes a bigger role in judging a player’s prominence. Currently, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are regarded as some of the best to ever play, a perspective based more on their respective club careers as opposed to their international successes. Both Messi and Ronaldo are judged on their individual scoring records and their stocked trophy cabinets. And, of course, like American football, defenders are not viewed on the same level.
Team sports give each great player some leeway. Some top players can be surrounded by a slew of awful players, causing an individual’s talents to go unrecognized. For individual sports, one would think this would be more clear cut, but this is not always the case. It would be easy to simply point to those who have won the most titles, or fights in their respective sport, without any regard for time period, social impact, or even an eye test. But these have become increasingly important. Serena Williams’ 23 Grand Slams have catapulted her to GOAT status above everyone else in women’s tennis. However, in a sport like boxing, Robinson, Ali, Floyd Mayweather, Jr., and many others could fill that role.
GOATs have increasingly become a topic of discussion among sports fans and sport talk shows. This discussion is perpetuated by the imprecise method of judging players, leading to different conclusions and debates about an incredibly objective label. Athletes themselves also seem to steer the discussion, with top pros like Mayweather and Pelé insisting that they are indeed the greatest in their respective trades. Maybe it’s a matter of titles, a generational gap, or perhaps a matter of an eye test. But as the list of criteria becomes longer and longer, the discussion around GOATs doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.
Tobias Wertime can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.