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Monday, February 13, 2012

G.O.A.T. (The first edition in a series about greatness in sports)

“G.O.A.T.”….Greatest Of All Time. What does it mean, exactly? What standard should be used in each sport to determine greatness? How much do team success like wins and championships factor into greatness? How much should one era of a sport be credited or discounted over a past or later era of a sport? Should different periods of time even be compared?

This topic reached my wheelhouse this past weekend when a group of college buddies, with whom I regularly discuss all manners of sports, began discussing the legacy of Paul Pierce, in light of Pierce surpassing Larry Bird as the Celtics second all-time leading scorer. This mushroomed, as it often does, into a discussion over the greatest player of all time and who was greater than whom.

This chain of discussions among this circle of friends has taken place for as long as we have all been regularly using email (more than 10 years). The basketball topic always starts some time shortly after the Super Bowl and will drag, sometimes (it feels like) in the same email thread, until after the NBA Finals. What never ceases to amaze me is how distinct, yet predictable, personalities emerge in these discussions.

I am not going to sell you my case for Michael Jordan being the G.O.A.T., not today. In fact, I am not even going to suggest reasons a certain standard, blending multiple measures of achievement. Today, I am going to discuss the lighter side of greatness in sports: the types of people (usually guys) you will inevitably encounter when discussing greatness.


It is impossible to have a discussion about individual greatness with five or more people without one or more pointing to a player’s skins on the wall as a talking point, if not a closing argument. If you don’t see that guy, it might be you! Count the Rings Guy can be a difficult debate opponent if you disagree with the relative accolades of the person he is promoting. After all, the ultimate goal of playing any competitive sport is to win and, ultimately, win a championship.

This guy has his strengths and weaknesses. Counting championship rings in a sports debate is like using salt or pepper: it can make a meal taste better, but you cannot eat it by itself. If the argument is properly framed, even in a team sport, it can be compelling and difficult to rebut.

Too often, however, this guy falls down the rabbit hole of prefacing and hinging his entire case upon the quantity of championships won by an individual player. If you can trap this guy into that argument, simply counter that reserve center Will Perdue of the Chicago Bulls has three championship rings. If “rings” is all this guy has, the discussion is over.

Bill Russell: G.O.A.T.? 1


This is the antithesis of Ring Guy. He will, correctly, point out that team sports are about more than one individual player. What this guy fails (or refuses) to acknowledge is that great players are the anchors on championship team. Championships won are an output of a great player’s career.

This guy has a strong position when discussing the relative greatness of marginal and role players, guys who were “good” or “key” to winning a championship, but not Hall of Fame players. When discussing true all time greats, particularly those with similar skill sets, winning and losing, particularly in the postseason and especially at the end of the postseason, is one of the few differentiators available to separate one great player’s resume from that of another.

When this guy gets on a roll, ask him who he thinks the five greatest players or coaches are in whatever category you are debating. Only a contrarian could name that many people without any championships, in which case you are talking to a brick wall and should not engage this person. When they name people who won championships, simply press this person to eliminate the championship winners and replace them with non-winners. It is always harder to refute a negative (like championships not mattering) than a positive, but it will throw a speed bump in this guy’s path.

Dan Marino: Zero rings, G.O.A.T.? 2


This is the guy who discounts the accomplishments of great players from the past because their physical dimensions, collectively, are smaller, weaker, and slower than their present-day counterparts. This is a person who will frequently use the words “would, could, and should”. This guy sometimes takes the opposite point of view because, for example, sports were less regulated. But often the bias is one toward the present day. He will argue you in circles if you fall into his trap.

This is one of the weakest debaters. He will not engage you in what actually happened on the field of play but, instead, drown you in hypotheticals of what would have happened. Pointing out that, in professional sports, the talent was more concentrated in the past because there were fewer teams in existence (hence the fraternity of pro athletes was more exclusive) is a waste of time. He will discount any groundbreaking achievements of athletes from the past and ignore the relative dominance of that person at that time. Since there is no real world DeLorean with a Flux Capacitor, which makes time travel possible, the comparison holds no merit because a direct, head-to-head competition between the athletes in question is not possible.

If you are in a debate with several people and this guy does not introduce a different angle, stop acknowledging him and address the talking points of the others. If you are debating this person, one-on-one, just cede the discussion to him or pick a similar era player because you will not get this person to budge, ever.

Jim Brown (Hall of Fame): that bum would be a bust in "the modern game"! 3


This is often the same guy as “He Wouldn’t Survive Today” Guy. If so, point out that if said athlete played back then, that his achievements should be discounted because he wouldn’t have been playing in the modern era. End of discussion. If this person’s bias only runs one way, suggesting that modern athletes would have dominated in the past, take the same approach out lined for “He Wouldn’t Survive Today” Guy. You’ll never win.
Bear Bryant: His legacy spawned off generations of this type of guy in Alabama. 4


There is always a guy who has been everywhere and seen everything. Because he has, his opinion is worth more than yours and he will tell you so. If you are debating this guy in an online chat room or fan forum, a simple “fuck you,” followed by moving on to another topic will suffice. If you are debating personal friends and acquaintances, more tact is in order.
Complete tool 6
The best way to handle this guy, should you choose to do so, is to keep him on topic. “I am smarter than you,” is a distraction technique. It’s irrelevant. The topic is sports, not who had the better ACT score. Force his hand and make him defend his statement, if he is so smart.

This guy is abrasive, by the very fact he would suggest he knows more than you (often without knowing what you do or don’t know) and you can expect some tense, heated moments with him. But we are MEN. We usually cannot let a guy earn stripes at our expense in a sports discussion!

There's always one. He knows it all, except how to get a girl! 5


"Joe Louis was 137 years old!" 7
This is the guy who has a few years on you or the group and his method of propelling his argument and discounting yours is the fact that he saw certain players play and certain events when the activity took place. Like a lot of debating styles, this guy has strengths and weaknesses.

When evaluating a cultural or societal response to an athlete, this person’s opinion, in a vacuum, does hold more weight than a person who did not see and experience a certain performance with comprehension and maturity. This guy, however, thinks that “more weight” means his opinion is the only one that counts. Two-hundred-ten pounds is more than 200 pounds, but it is not a monumental difference. A better informed younger person, for example, is more credible than an ignorant person who watched events unfold without seeing the bigger picture.

Likewise, he thinks that because he saw an athlete from a past era play in person or on live television and you didn’t, he knows more than you about the athlete and any topic involving that athlete as a whole. Again, there is some merit to that point, but it does not give Old Guy carte blanche to dominate the discussion with questionable, stretching-reality opinions. Someone who watched Kiki Wandeweghe play in the 1990s can argue with an 18 year old that Kiki was a better player than LeBron James, but nobody is listening, not even Kiki.

Kiki Vandeweghe: last name, "Ever", first name, "Greatest"? 9


There is always one like this in every discussion. This is often one of the stronger debaters because Stats Guy is backing up his argument with facts. However, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. This guy, too often, can get caught up in the minutia of numbers while ignoring the eyes test and not analyzing what the numbers are actually telling us.

This guy can be a tough sell. You can talk all day about what “could have” “should have” and “would have” happened until you are blue in the face. The scoreboard is the final arbiter in any athletic contest. This guy, however, often tries to propel a weaker argument by manipulating the numbers and trying to convince the group that the numbers are saying more or less than they really are.

Knowledge is power. The only way to beat this guy is to know some stats of your own and either directly rebut Stats Guy or manipulate some numbers of your own to put him back on his heels. Remember that Daunte Culpepper had the seventh best single season QB rating in NFL history. He will not be fitted for a crème colored jacket or a have a bust in Canton, Ohio one day.

"He whipped Joe Louis' ass!" 8


This is the guy who often doesn’t want to listen to facts or reason if you support your argument with statistics. This is not the antithesis of Stats Guy. Stats Guy goes through analysis paralysis with numbers, but at least is dealing with irrefutable, objective facts. Stats Don’t Count Guy is throwing critical thinking to the wind. His entire position is, often, “That isn’t how I see it.” Try to steer this guy into backing up his claims and comparisons with something of substance. If that does not happen, do not bother engaging this guy. It is his way or the highway.

This guy isn't hearing or seeing your point. 10


All Pro? More like, "All JV".  13
This is another example of a person whose life experience does, in fact, add to his credibility. This guy played the sport in question in an organized manner and (presumably) for an extended period of time and (presumably) you did not if he plays the “I played the game,” card. When that card is played, you had better have a strong position, know what you are talking about, and be able to back it up. Because this guy did, in fact, play and you didn’t.

Often, the only weakness this guy exhibits is when he tries to extend his credibility further than he is entitled to. A four year letterman on his high school football team, who did not play in college, probably can spot a flawed fundamental blocking or tackling technique, at any level, that you cannot identify if you never played at that level. He has very little credibility over you in discussing the degree of difficulty of executing a punt return in the NFL. Put this guy in his place when he steps out of place.

The female counterparts to the dudes still reliving their high school glory in sports debates. 11


I hope you enjoyed this light hearted piece on different kinds of sports debate guys. Chances are you have encountered every last one of these guys and see some of these guy in yourself. Or maybe you said, “Hey…that’s ME he talking about!” The Hat Trick will look into some more angles of evaluating greatness in sports. I hope that this opening salvo lightened the mood before we get into some more meat and potatoes discussion in future editions.

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