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Who Is the GOAT of All GOATs?

Choose carefully — your selection will reveal much about you

Collage of various goat athletes
Neil Jamieson

Is there anything stupider than arguing about who is the greatest football player of all time? There is! Who is the greatest of all time in all sports? That’s right, who’s the GOAT of GOATs?

Sure, it’s comparing apples and oranges, but we’re also throwing in some plums and peaches and mangoes. That’s a fiber-rich debate.

“It’s a fun topic because there is no correct answer,” says Justin Kubatko, a statistical consultant at Statitudes and creator of Basketball-Reference.com.

It also reveals your personal values. How much weight do you give to, say, an athlete’s dominance of an era? (Woods!) Influence on the sport? (Jackie!) Versatility? (Bo!) Are team championships (Bill!) more important than individual stats? (Wilt!) What about cultural impact? (Ali!) Longevity? (Gordie!)

The stat guys often look beyond the stats. “If you go purely by the numbers, you’re gonna miss some things,” says Kubatko, noting that the NBA didn’t bother recording steals or blocks in the early years.

He points out that Michael Jordan’s six titles in eight years are “on par with if not superior” to Bill Russell’s 11 in 13 because of the small size of the NBA in Russell’s prime (eight to 14 teams) and brief playoffs. Kabatko notes that Russell won MVP awards (voted by players back then) in several years when he didn’t make the all-NBA first team (media voting).

Which brings up sub-debates like: Offense compared to defense? Team sports compared to individual sports? And let’s define our terms: GOAT stands for Greatest of All Time. Greatest what? Competitor? Pure athlete? Winner? Cultural icon?

If a superior alien intelligence were asked to name the homo sapiens GOAT, they might scratch their exoskeleton with a tentacle, stifle a chuckle, and question our adorable human metrics like speed (Lewis!), quickness (Sanders?), strength (LT!), power (Brown!) endurance (Kipchoge!), jumping (Jordan!).

We’d try to explain about our quaintly human concepts like competitiveness (Cobb!), leadership (Montana!) and hand-eye coordination (Serena!). And the aliens would shake their heads at our feeble hands and eyes. (And suggest that we look at Steph Curry, who they objectively consider all-universe.)

Your argument says a lot about you. If you prefer, say, LeBron over Ali, you probably value team leadership over individual achievement and cultural impact. If you prefer Kobe over Shaq, maybe grace and style matter to you. This reflects your identity formation and your self-concept, as the shrinks say.

Speaking of psychology, let’s bring in Johnny Smith, a professor of sports history (actual job) at Georgia Tech.

“These debates about the GOAT are superficial. They’re ridiculous,” he says amiably. “It’s a debate about who’s the king of men, and that’s a debate that’s as old as professional sports.”

But he also understands it. “On a big, maybe a psychological level, we have this personal investment,” Smith says, “these bonds that we form with the athletes who represent our teams, our hometowns, our colleges, our country.”

The irony, he says (professors love irony) is that fans love sport because it’s a “theatrical drama that provides a definitive conclusion. There is a winner. But these debates, they’re pure fantasy.”

Yep, and men love to fantasize. Imagine, for instance, Babe Ruth with a modern trainer and nutritionist. Turn that around: Would Tom Brady have lasted 23 years on a 1950s diet of steak, martinis, and linebacker helmets?

Then there’s race. “Ruth was certainly the most influential athlete of his time,” Smith says, “but he competed at a time when Major League Baseball was segregated.” Generational bias is unavoidable. “Everyone tries to make a claim on how their era is better, that their generation represents something larger,” Smith adds.

For Gen Xers, Walter Payton and Magic Johnson and Carl Lewis must be in the mix. Hell, maybe the GOAT of GOATs walks among us — a Ruthian throwback with 97 mph fastballs and 490-foot homers. We’re keeping an eye on you, Shohei Ohtani.

Smith muses that his Mount Rushmore of finalists would probably include Jackie Robinson, Ali and Billie Jean King. That’s the historian in him, favoring those who “change the story” of sports.

Kabatko, the hoops nut, offered a stunning nominee: Wayne Gretzky. “He was just amazing. Statistical dominance, team dominance, longevity, awards, honors. He had everything, and he was called the Great One for a reason.”

Louis Moore, a sports history professor at Grand Valley State University, leans toward Ali. “The individual sport of boxing is so difficult to be great at,” he says. “Baseball is great, too, but no one’s hitting you at the same time.”

So who is the one true GOAT of all GOATs? We have no idea. But this is where you come in. We’ve picked 25 nominees for the GOAT, MD (Greatest of All Time, Male Division). In the comments, vote for your favorite(s), and we’ll tally the results.

Babe Ruth
Michael Jordan
Roger Federer
Lionel Messi
Jack Nicklaus
Michael Phelps
Wayne Gretzky
Jim Thorpe
Muhammad Ali
Kobe Bryant
Gordie Howe
Willie Mays
Joe Louis
Mario Lemieux
Rod Laver
Hank Aaron
Tom Brady
Bill Russell
Sugar Ray Robinson
Tiger Woods
Novak Djokovic
Diego Maradona
LeBron James
Jim Brown

Follow Article Topics: Inside-Dope