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Introducing 'The GOAT Chronicles': A Deep Dive into the Greatest of All Time


“___ isn’t just the greatest (insert sport) player ever, but he’s the greatest athlete ever.”


It’s a common refrain, from fans, pundits, and journalists alike. Each time Shohei Ohtani or Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi adds to their legacy, the question is posed: are we watching the greatest athlete of all time? Of course, in all cases but one, the answer to that question, by definition, is no. Due to the differences between sports, it’s an incredibly difficult question to answer.


The purpose of this series will be twofold. First, to declare a standardized GOAT in each male sport covered, by utilizing the same criteria to pick that sport’s GOAT. Second, to sift through these candidates using those criteria to decide which one is the most deserving of the title of GOAT for all male athletes.


While it may seem unfair or unreasonable, it must be said here that the reason women’s athletics will not be considered in this series has absolutely nothing to do with the caliber of the athletes. Athletes such as Serena Williams, Simone Biles, and Babe Didrikson Zaharias (my personal pick for greatest female athlete ever) have strong cases to be considered the greatest athletes of any gender of all time. The reason that women’s athletics will not be covered is twofold: firstly, because this will be a massive undertaking as is, and second, because of the relative difference in treatment between genders in athletics. 


The fact of the matter is that sexism and societal expectations for the role of a woman carry broad sporting implications that make it immensely difficult to compare female athletes to male athletes historically. Societal barriers certainly prevented countless fantastic female athletes who could have been candidates from competing in various sports, which dramatically complicates the search, and decreased funding and resources for women’s athletics means that the top female athletes simply did not receive the same support as their male counterparts across history. Things are changing, but that doesn’t mean it’s an equal playing field.


Again, it is important to emphasize that this is not an indictment of female athletes — if anything, it’s the opposite. This is the acknowledgment that there is not, and has never been, a level playing field for women. Look no further than the present struggle in professional tennis for players on the WTA to make anything close to their ATP counterparts, or the measly salaries received by WNBA players in comparison to their NBA counterparts. This makes it simply unreasonable to attempt to compare the achievements of the greatest female athletes to their male counterparts because we do not know what could have been had they had the same support systems in place from the beginning. The systematic advantage provided to male athletes on account of their gender makes it unfair to compare. This isn’t taking anything away from the accomplishments of those male athletes, either, merely stating the obvious truth — that it’s easier to be a man than a woman in sports.


Because this could turn into a behemoth of a series, the scope will be limited to a few sports. As an American site, baseball, basketball, hockey, and American football will be covered, as will golf and tennis. Boxing will be covered, and World Football will of course be covered, while the Olympics/athletics will be treated as their sport (which will be an interesting one, as there are several elite candidates).


The process for selecting the candidates for each sport will be rather simple. There are a few obvious ones in every sport (the Big 3 in tennis, Bolt and Phelps in athletics, etc), and of course, they will be in there. Since we have a chance to dive deeper into those sports because this is a series, any reasonable candidate will be included — and reasonable will be defined as anybody named within the top 10 of a GOAT list within the top 5 links of a search for each sport (which theoretically could be up to 50 people, but in all likelihood will not be more than 15). Only the top 5 will be ranked for each sport with fully written explorations, but all candidates that cut will be ranked by the same criteria.


Before establishing criteria, to ensure objectivity, I will make it clear who I think the GOAT is in each respective sport that will be covered. I tend to favor statistical arguments in my personal GOAT judgment, so I expect that it will be somewhat similar to the overall conclusion for each sport covered — but it should be noted that this does not mean those same athletes will be elevated in the all-time GOAT athlete discussion, based on the criteria used. Here is my GOAT list:


American Football: Brady

Baseball: Bonds

Hockey: Gretzky

Basketball: Jordan

World Football: Messi

Tennis: Djokovic

Golf: Tiger

Boxing: Ali

Olympic Sports/Athletics: Bolt


I expect that all of these will be challenged. It’s unlikely that none of the names there are in the final conversation, because my GOATs are generally the ones I consider to be the most objective GOAT candidate, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a few there aren’t the GOAT based on the criteria.


So, what are those criteria? The difficulty in selecting criteria to measure athletes across different sports is that, for those criteria to apply to each athlete, they can’t be sport-specific. Instead of titles, for example, we must use accolades — which then include individual titles for individual sports. Since some of our athletes are coming from team sports, but are being compared overall to athletes playing individual sports, the criteria must elevate the greatest individual performers in those team sports while simultaneously establishing the role of those individuals in their teams’ success and the importance of those roles to their sport’s debate. MVP awards don’t exist in tennis, so how can we measure that? 


The best way to measure is going to be some combination of statistical dominance over the sport, longevity, and time spent as the best. Concerning somebody like Neymar (who, as I discussed in a previous article (https://www.thedyspatch.com/post/the-case-for-neymar-as-an-all-time-great), is in my opinion at worst one of the 10 greatest footballers of all time), you can’t be the GOAT if you didn’t have a period where you were the best in the world in your sport. Longevity matters, but so does the peak. With that said, here’s how the criteria for the GOAT series will look, both in the individual sports pieces and the overall discussion.


The word “greatest” has several definitions. It means the most outstanding, the most superior to others, and the highest in quality. So how can this be applied to athletics? Firstly, we must consider the athlete’s peak when compared to their era. How far was the athlete ahead of their field at the time? Training, nutrition, and technology advance over time, so to compare athletic prowess, we must consider athletes in contrast with their eras. Secondly, we must consider longevity. Several players in each sport, at some point, were better than their peers. How long were they at that level? At some point, longevity does outweigh peak. Having a greater peak is only significant with relatively comparable longevity. The quality of the body of work matters, but a slightly higher quality of work over a significantly shorter period is an inferior resume.


Most outstanding and highest in quality are easy. We’ll measure peaks in two ways - first, in pure ability, and second, in statistical dominance. Pure ability will be more difficult than statistical dominance. Statistical dominance will contain the logic and reasoning for the emphasis on statistics used, for maximum transparency, and then will be followed by a numerical deep dive into the top candidates. Pure ability will be somewhat subjective, so to remove subjectivity, peer accounts, and sports historians will be utilized to supplement this section.


For longevity, we will again have two considerations: firstly, pure career length and volume numbers, and secondly, time spent at or near the top of the sport. The second piece will be more subjective than the first, but the lengths given will have reasoning and numbers to back them up. The goal is to reach as objective an overall athletic GOAT as possible, so there can be no “LeBron was playing like the best player in the world for x number of seasons.” Instead, it will be “LeBron was considered by at least 1 publication to be the best player in the world between (year and year) and to be in the top 10 between (year and year). The statistical evidence backs this assertion…” and so on. Maybe it’s more complicated, but it’s more objective than just stating how long LeBron has been an elite player.


Most superior to others is going to be the most difficult aspect of “greatest” to handle, particularly when comparing individual sports to team sports. For example, it’s easy to look at Usain Bolt’s times and figure out exactly how dominant he was and how much better he was than his closest peers. It’s not very easy to figure out how far Tom Brady was from his closest peers. This will be addressed in each article, and again in the concluding piece.


The overall goal of this series, although stated as finding the objective GOAT, is for this to be as much an exploration of athletic greatness as it is an objective search for one true GOAT. Each article will dive deep into some of the greatest figures in the history of male sport - a truly unique opportunity to, perhaps, find what makes these men tick, and unravel the mysteries of true sporting greatness.


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