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The G.O.A.T: Why its impossible in Sports to Determine the Greatest of All-Time

Updated on May 19, 2020
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We have all heard someone say that someone or something is the greatest of all-time. I’ve even been quoted as saying that “Top Gun is the greatest film of all of time” but that’s just a spur of the moment talk. We’re arguing real important information here, the greatest of all-time in the sports arena. Tom Brady may be considered the G.O.A.T. is we are talking about the NFL as he has 6-Super Bowl Titles has played in 9. If we are talking soccer than maybe a suggestion might be Pelé because he not only played for so long but he scored more goals than any other player. Major League Baseball is a toss up because despite being a team game there are so many other categories that determine who might be considered the greatest baseball player ever but for the sake of argument Babe Ruth will be used in this example. Professional basketball however has seemed to ponder this question and three names come to mind that revolve around this debate that has been going on for almost a decade now. Who is the greatest NBA player ever? You’re three choices are MJ (Michael Jordan), Kobe Bryant, or LeBron James. Each player in their own right at the time of playing was, and in the case of LeBron is, the best player of their generation. However, Jordan has the most titles of the three, LeBron has the most points of the three, and Kobe is arguably the best shooter of the three. So who really is the greatest player of all-time in NBA history? I am not going to debate that because each player has a strong case to be considered but the vast majority would say Michael Jordan.


What brought on this question for me recently was the new ESPN documentary The Last Dance directed by Jason Hehir, who has directed several other ESPN films in the 30 for 30 canon. The Last Dance through its first eight episodes has shown us something that we have yet to have seen in sports. It shows the greatest basketball player in an era where he was the most exciting figure in all of sports. The show documents the Chicago Bulls 1997-1998 title run which featured much commotion and turmoil all at the cost of being crowned NBA champion for the 6th time in Jordan and co-captain Scottie Pippen’s cases. The Bulls of the 1990s were something to watch, I was born in 1996 but remember Michael playing when I was young as he finished his career with the Wizards in 2003. Jordan was never “washed up” or “old and outdated” as we the fans describe many of the other players that were once our idols as they deteriorate into the abyss of their careers at sports highest levels. Jordan, according to The Last Dance seemed tired and overwhelmed as his colleagues stated but Jordan never truly stopped working as hard as he did despite all of this, he had no sense of quitting or laying down. Jordan is for all true purposes the greatest thing that the National Basketball Association had ever laid its eyes on but based on The Last Dance he was not the most likeable soul on those legendary championship rosters. So how come this term is so widely used in sports to define it's biggest stars.


Their needs to be a criteria of some sort to define who the greatest is for each sport. Using the NBA as an example, Michael Jordan cannot simply be called the greatest player to ever live in the modern NBA, we need to do some digging. If we are going by records, than Wilt Chamberlain holds 68 individual records himself. By titles, the answer would be Bill Russell. Russell with 11, 8 of which came in a row (1959-1966). Granted, a statistician would be arguing that Russell and Chamberlain played in a different period and during their time players were not independently athletes and worked during the off-season. In the National Football League the answer is much trickier because an individual cannot necessarily play on both offense, defense, and special teams without certain parameters being met. However, Deion Sanders was brought up as the greatest NFL player ever by Stephen A. Smith on First Take, ESPN’s signature discussion show. Sanders played both sides of the ball but does not hold any individual records of his own. Deion Sanders is one of the top 50 NFL players of all-time voted by the associated press ranking at number 34. Boxing presents an even larger problem because stats are not as essential in boxing as there are not too many to focus on except for wins, losses, and decisions. Muhammad Ali was widely referred to as “The Greatest” but through examining records “Rocky” Marciano won 49 bouts and lost 0. There is also that fact that boxing has many different weight classes and divisions making it almost impossible to determine who is the greatest boxer of all-time. Major League Baseball, prevents the largest problem of any of the sports though because it has way more statistics than many other sports from hits, runs, ERA, Strikeouts, Slugging percentages, and even WAR. The issue with baseball is that like football, a player cannot conceivably have valid stats for every single category. On the other hand, players bat and play in the field and even then they cannot achieve a minor number in every single category.


There is but one conclusion based on the brief analysis and it is that there is no true way to determine the greatest athlete in an individual sport because there is not simply one way to resolve this debate. Oddly enough though sports publications have list for the greatest athletes regardless of sport. However, there is one characteristic that is above all being overlooked. Many of these G.O.A.T. determinations are athletes who play in team sports and have great individual achievements but like the 1990s Chicago Bulls, Jordan may have been the best player on that team, but as he says in The Last Dance he couldn’t have won without Scottie Pippen. After all it was Michigan Wolverines Football Coach Bo Schembechler who said “The Team, The Team, The Team.”

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Ellis Distefano

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