Time for a GOAT intervention, people. We’re obsessed with the acronym. Every excellent person or thing we watch in sports is the greatest of all time, or should be, or can’t possibly be because an old GOAT stole our hearts long ago.
It’s all about this ultimate superlative, and like a rich dessert, the debate is delicious at first, then overwhelming and finally just plain bad for your health. When trying to rank and make historical sense of transcendent athletes from different eras, there is often no right or wrong, which makes it a perfectly endless sports discussion. But it does become inane. And here’s the thing about most GOAT-caliber athletes: They don’t need the title.
True greatness doesn’t have to lobby to have its greatness quantified. True greatness is understood. It lives in that same silence that overcomes a room when an extraordinary human being enters.
During an interview on “Good Morning America” after the New England Patriots won Super Bowl LIII, Michael Strahan, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, asked six-time champion Tom Brady about being called the GOAT. Brady fidgeted.
“I don’t even like that,” he told Strahan. “I don’t even like it. It makes me cringe; it makes me cringe; it makes me cringe. I guess I take compliments worse than I take [criticism]. I wish you would say: ‘You’re trash. You’re too old. You’re too slow. You can’t get it done no more.’ And I would say: ‘Thank you very much. I’m going to go prove you wrong.’ ”
Instead, Brady starred in one of the GOAT-iest of all GOAT debates. Now that he has matched Michael Jordan as a six-ring bearer, ESPN promoted a cross-sports debate of mental attrition: Is Brady or Jordan the greater GOAT? Ah, yes. We’re moving on to the GGOAT.
If it wasn’t hard enough to distinguish the brilliance of Jordan from LeBron James, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other basketball legends — if it wasn’t hard enough deciding among Brady, Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Jim Brown, Lawrence Taylor and other football giants — try throwing two disparate sports into the pot and making a digestible argument. And try stumping for one undeniably great player without talking down another, which is what turns these debates from interesting to moronic. At the highest levels, greatness should be unassailable. Problem is, there is no definitive, accepted method to measure the tiny margins that may separate the best of the best.
“One challenge, and why there are so many fights, is how do you define great?” said Eddie O’Connor, a clinical sports psychologist in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a certified consultant through the Association for Applied Sports Psychology. “What are we talking about? Every time somebody speaks, they emphasize something different. Until there is an agreement on specific criteria that defines great, this is going to go on forever.”
O’Connor specializes in helping athletes achieve peak performance, but this slice of fan and media behavior was compelling enough for him to toss some intellect into this wrestling match. It’s fascinating to ponder why something so meaningless matters this much. While it seems the conversation has intensified, O’Connor cautions that social media has turned what used to be segmented arguments into bigger and louder affairs. Your water cooler, sports bar or barbershop is now connected to all water coolers, sports bars and barbershops around the world.
In addition, you must consider that the largest American pro sports leagues are still relatively young. Major League Baseball is the old head, but it has been around for just 150 years. The NFL turns 100 next year. The NBA is almost 73. In our vast history, the sports world remains a puppy. It means that, relative to the tales of Earth and human existence, there’s so little a record that we are bound to be captivated by the evolution of athletic feats and how different eras might compare. Ultimately, the sample size remains small.
It may seem like you need to employ scientists to study fossils in order to compare Sammy Baugh to Aaron Rodgers, but it isn’t necessary. Although it can be difficult to measure the very old against the very new, it’s comprehensible, unlike some things in history. Perhaps one day, long after we have left the world and our GOAT biases behind, it will take half-centuries or centuries to mark significant change in sports. Right now, it’s possible to go decade to decade, era to era, generation to generation.
Certainly, this has been a special era. It has given us some greats nearing their end of their runs. To name a few: Brady, James, Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Tiger Woods, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Lionel Messi. Let’s stop there to give you room for some “Why the hell didn’t you mention so-and-so?” admonishing. (Because there’s nothing better than a column that’s flowing pretty well, and then it goes on a tangential 25-name list just to include every imaginable shout-out, right? Moving on . . .)
In this social media era, the greats elevate their sports with astonishing accomplishments and longevity, and as they scale the mountain toward eternal respect, there is a symbol waiting to greet them: a barnyard animal emoji. A goat for the GOAT. Baaaaaa.
What a strange time. But in the generational war, it matters to millennials that “now” is respected. It matters to baby boomers that “then” is not forgotten. It matters to everyone else that they are able to attach excellence to their generations, too. This is the most underrated aspect of the GOAT obsession. It’s the need to associate your life with something wonderful. Who wants to exist as an afterthought?
So when James declared himself the GOAT — or, as he has tried to clarify, he thought of himself as the greatest simply in the moment of his greatest accomplishment — on an episode of his own digital show, the sports world went bonkers. How could he? He could he not?
“That one right there made me the greatest player of all time. . . . That’s what I felt,” James said during his “More Than An Athlete” series on ESPN, explaining frankly his emotions after Cleveland beat Golden State in the 2016 NBA Finals. “I was super, super ecstatic to win one for Cleveland because of the 52-year drought. The first wave of emotion was when everyone saw me crying — like, that was all for 52 years of everything in sports that’s gone on in Cleveland. And then after I stopped, I was like, ‘That one right there made you the greatest player of all time.’ ”
Not sure anyone has told himself he was the greatest since Muhammad Ali. And he said it at 22 years old, when his name was still Cassius Clay. He lived up to it, and in essence, he gave birth to the acronym. In fact, in 1992, his wife, Lonnie, created G.O.A.T. Inc. to combine and protect his intellectual properties. It was a shrewd move that eventually led to a $50 million licensing agreement for Ali.
So blame The Greatest for the GOAT. And then blame rapper LL Cool J for his Ali-inspired album “G.O.A.T.” in 2000. Now, the acronym is ubiquitous. And, soon, there will be so many goat (or GOAT) emoji that children won’t even know the animal actually exists.
The reality is that there will never be a singular GOAT. It is the combination of sports greatness from every era, and with human evolution, every generation adds something fresh to the distinction. It’s fine, but largely pointless, to argue whether you respect the innovator or the master more. Both contribute to a sports world in which the bar keeps raising.
“We like acronyms because we like things simple,” O’Connor said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. As a sports psychologist, I want to take the simple and then show the layers. It all comes down to excellence. We are born to grow and strive and see and reach for extremes. We’re born to appreciate it. That’s what we so obsessed with these transcendent athletes.
“It’s like the Marvel [Cinematic] Universe, and why those movies are so successful. We love superheroes and sports and amazing physical powers. We’re interested in things out of the ordinary. We’re fascinated by it.”
And so, in the end, this intervention was for me, too. When taken care of responsibly, the GOAT is just fine. If sports are about thrills, if sports are about evolution, why not believe there can be something greater than the greatest?
GOAT on, people. But let’s all agree to limit the arguments to 30 minutes, okay?