With Lionel Messi winning a World Cup with Argentina and Tom Brady retiring (again) and Roger Federer retiring not that long ago, there’s been lots of discussion about GOATs — Greatest of All Time — not just who they might be, but what constitutes GOAT status. It’s gone from a fun debate which could end in a Big Lebowski style, “That’s just, like your opinion, man,” to heated social media and television exchanges. Like any worthy discussion, it helps to set some ground rules first. And to remember, after all, that it is just an opinion.
Where Did GOAT Come From?
When Muhammad Ali claimed to be “the greatest,” he wasn’t anywhere close. In fact, he wasn’t even Muhammad Ali. He was Cassius Clay and the 21 year-old hadn’t even fought Sonny Liston yet. But Ali proved himself and many years later, in 1992, his wife created G.O.A.T. Inc. which led to a $50m licensing deal for Ali.
The easiest GOAT metric to start with is the one that doesn’t lie: stats. But are statistics enough? Pete Rose would seem to be one counterexample: the man with a record of hits that will likely never be eclipsed isn’t talked about as a GOAT and in fact, is likely never to be included in the Hall of Fame. Same for the man who apparently holds the all-time home runs record, Barry Bonds.
What tainted Rose and Bonds has tainted others: have you engaged in activities that have brought embarrassment or shame to you, your family, or your team? This seems to be an obstacle any potential GOAT will have to overcome.
Those who are in the conversation for GOAT don’t just trade in their statistics, or even by claiming GOAT status by virtue of bringing a sports championship to a Midwestern city that has a sad sports history. They often have won the respect and accolades of their teammates, coaches, business partners, and the cities they have been associated with.
Those accolades don’t make them saints. They are human, like others. But on balance, their off the field Ws outnumber their Ls by a significant margin.
Another big challenge is the fact that games (and their rules) change. Lawrence Taylor has said that he doesn’t consider Brady a GOAT because he thinks that referees coddle quarterbacks now. While LT may have a point, is that really fair to the player? Rules change and so do the demands on players. Today’s athletes have every part of their body and diet watched, and all of their movements are tracked and analyzed for improvement after the game. In the old days it was enough to show up sober and do well. Today even your tweets are watched (and can get you fired).
It’s obvious that when comparing players from different eras, it’s always going to be apples and oranges.
If someone claims GOAT status (like Ali did), they should get the Lebowski treatment because if you are the greatest, you certainly don’t need to tell everyone you are. Ultimately fans and the court of public opinion (not you) decide. And interestingly, they will keep deciding. Some GOATs can go out of fashion, particularly in the current cancel culture climate. This doesn’t stop some of those in the GOAT conversation from putting their sides of the story out, and The Last Dance and Man in the Arena have offered insights that many fans and admirers enjoyed and appreciated.
GOATs are framed in posters on the walls of kids that are growing up, in the mouths of talking heads who talk about a sport, in the good deeds that they do that aren’t widely known or reported. It’s not just about the stats, it’s about how you show up every day not just while playing the sport, not just when you’re on your personal time, but long after you’ve left your sport. A legacy, like GOAT status, isn’t something just awarded once and never revoked. It’s something, interestingly, that keeps getting earned over time, as stats fade away and people recall the impact that someone made, not just as an athlete, but as a person, not just on the field, but off it.