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Monday, April 22, 2024

Greatest Of All Time?

“The Last Dance” inspires The Aggie to examine the GOAT debate

Sports debates of all kinds seem to exist in a never-ending cycle. When it comes to the debate over the greatest player of all time, that cycle is even more incessant. 

The GOAT (greatest of all time) debate is brought up every so often when generational players achieve the incredible. Debate is a part of human nature, but there’s something to be said about these debates in sports that can be, at times, frustrating, fatiguing and trivial. 

Centered around the career of Michael Jordan, the newly released ESPN documentary “The Last Dance” has once again revived basketball’s GOAT debate. It has also inspired The Aggie to take a look at this debate, as well as that of all the major sports, to examine who is in the running for GOAT in each respective competition.

Out of all sports, hockey seems to have the easiest answer to the GOAT question. Some older fans may argue in favor of Bobby Orr, but his career only lasted 10 seasons, so there remains a lot of “what-ifs” surrounding his legacy compared to others. 

Others may say Gordie Howe, whose 32-year professional career and outstanding achievements rewrote the hockey record book from the end of World War II to the Cold War. But in the end, the near-unanimous pick for greatest hockey player of all time is Wayne Gretzky. His nickname is “The Great One” for obvious reasons, and if you were to look at almost every hockey record book, his name will either be at the top or somewhere near it.

 It is almost impossible to recreate the dominance that Gretzky maintained throughout his career. In a sport where the Art Ross Trophy, given to the player with the most points in a season, is a highlight of many players’ careers, Gretzky won it 10 times — four more than the next player. He holds the top two spots in most goals in a season, with 92 and 87 respectively. He won the Hart Trophy (given to the NHL’s most valuable player) nine times in his career. 

Perhaps Gretzky’s most unbreakable mark is accumulating 200 points in three consecutive seasons. No other player has done that even once and he did it four times in five seasons. The rest of this article could be filled with just his records, which is why the GOAT debate in hockey is almost nonexistent. 

When it comes to soccer, there is a battle of the ages. From Pele in the late ’50s to Diego Maradona in the ’80s to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo today, the soccer debate goes far beyond dominating the game. 

Soccer has an interesting GOAT debate due to the nature of the game. It is nearly impossible for just one player to win a game, as there are 11 players and several different positions that are all important to a team’s success; it’s not just those who score the goals. But a lot of these debates rely on measured statistics, so since defenders and goalkeepers aren’t the ones scoring the goals, they are often overlooked. 

Whether that’s unfair or not, that pretty much leaves the debate to Pele and Maradona. While Messi and Ronaldo may seem like they belong in this conversation, their careers are not yet over and more can be added to their resume. So for now, they will be left off. 

In terms of records, it is hard to find someone more dominant than Pele. The most goals ever, most World Cup wins ever (three), FIFA player of the century, the list goes on. Many call him the most important player ever because his dominance brought many eyes to the sport and increased its global popularity. 

The one knock on Pele will always be something that he was unable to control and that is the level of play. With his career occuring in an era when the competition was not as ramped-up as it is today, many see this as an asterisk. It is unfair, but being that his career was so long ago, it is hard to see his resume ever being held as high as it should be. 

When it comes to Maradona, his ability to create magic at his feet (or hand) was an incredible thing to watch. What many call the best individual World Cup performance ever, his 1986 run for the trophy will forever be remembered as a “one-man team”. He was able to lift up any team by himself and in a sport that requires a lot from all 11 players on the pitch, Maradona seemed to be the one player in history who has managed to single-handedly turn around a team. Both players’ accolades speak for themselves, but in this GOAT debate, it all depends on what you value. 

Baseball is probably the hardest sport in which to single out one player. With so many different positions, skill-sets and the stark contrast between offensive and defensive greatness, it’s difficult to say definitively which player had the greatest impact on the game. 

Because home runs and offense is often considered the “fun” part of baseball, pitchers are usually left out of the GOAT debate. They are crucial to the game and without them, there would be none. Nonetheless, they often have their own category for greatest player ever — pitchers like Walter Johnson, Randy Johnson, Cy Young are among the best to ever throw the ball.

When talking about baseball’s greats, it is almost certain you have to mention Babe Ruth. The most popular name in his sport, the numbers of “The Great Bambino” were, in his time, otherworldly. A .513 weighted batting average (wOBA), 197 weighted runs created plus (wRC+), and 206 OPS+ puts him at the top of each category, according to FanGraphs. His 164.8 wins above replacement (WAR) is the best ever and his dominance came from more than just hitting. He was also a pitcher with a career 2.28 earned run average (ERA). 

A case could also be made for Barry Bonds, whose numbers are also some of the best of all time. But in the end, his steroid allegations overshadow what was otherwise an all-time great career. We’ll never know when or if he did use illegal substances, but it seems like no matter how much he denies it, his GOAT argument will always have an asterisk. 

Another player you can make an argument for is Willie Mays, who is possibly the greatest all-around baseball player ever. He ranks third all-time in WAR and was a force at the plate and in center field. Baseball is hard to make a case for someone new due to the nature of the game. Not being able to have a direct impact on every play makes the debate more of a numbers game than anything else. 

Like baseball, the many different positions in the game of football makes it hard to choose just one player. But there is one position in football that seems to hold the most power: the quarterback. That’s why when you talk about the GOAT in football, you’ll often end up with a quarterback. 

The most obvious pick is Tom Brady, whose six Super Bowls, countless clutch moments and three league MVPs speak for themselves. It is hard to find a more accomplished player than Brady, who will soon be continuing his career with his 21st NFL season. Brady is often measured against Joe Montana, the four-time Super Bowl champion quarterback and Hall of Famer, for the title of the greatest quarterback ever. But despite Montana’s greatness, some argue that his case for GOAT is diminished due to his 49ers teams that were loaded with superstar players and one of the greatest coaches ever. 

That said, there are a lot of arguments to be made for position players like Lawrence Taylor, a linebacker who is widely regarded as the greatest defensive player ever and Jim Brown, a running back who changed the sport and is one of the best ever at his position. 

But none can truly compare to that of Jerry Rice, who to many is football’s GOAT.  Over his illustrious 19-year career, Rice is the all-time leader in receiving yards by a large margin, a three-time Super Bowl champion and the NFL’s all-time leader in all-purpose touchdowns. There has been no player at any position that was able to dominate as much as Rice did and it will be interesting to see if anyone ever will. Because of that, it is not crazy to say the greatest player in football history was a wide receiver in a league dominated by quarterbacks.

Though the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson and many more could be included in basketball’s GOAT debate, over the years, it has come down to just two players: MJ and Lebron. 

Almost every statistical category, career accolades and all other forms of measurement have been used in this debate, leaving everyone even more deadlocked on their personal opinions. You could go into detail about the obvious choices like finals records, MVPs, other individual awards, playoff performances and so much more. 

The truth is, it is almost impossible to touch Jordan’s perfect 6-0 NBA Finals record, just like it is almost impossible to match Lebron’s streak of leading his team to the Finals for eight straight years. For everything you could bring up about Jordan, you can match it with something equally impressive from Lebron. The heavyweight bout between these two can go blow for blow, without ever achieving a unanimous decision. While things can change if Lebron can win a championship or two more, it is clear that figuring out the GOAT in basketball is the same as in every other sport.

The debate is a battle of generations, not facts. Above all, it is a matter of personal feelings and to put the bias aside is a near-impossible task. The reason it is so hard to come to an agreement is that people like to hear, but not listen. In sports, when someone has an opinion, it is difficult to change it.

No matter what you say or do, it is almost impossible to convince somebody about something that they have made their mind up about. If you were to engage with a fellow sports fan about your differing opinions, it will almost certainly end in the same place you started. That is why this endless cycle of the debate will continue on as long as there are sports to be played. 

The idea that someone has to be named the greatest comes from sports itself, as there always has to be a winner. But sports fans were brought up to each have their own allegiance, so to believe that you will be able to convince somebody otherwise is to fall into the never-ending abyss that is the GOAT debate. 

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org


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