I Don't Believe in GOATS (Blame The Stans)


My late father pledged allegiance to Jim Brown and Johnny Unitas.

See, growing up with parents who actually saw them play was enlightening in ways most people could never understand. Whereas most of my friends had parents who were born in the 1960s and early 1970s, my parents were in their twenties and thirties during those days with two young daughters and fascinating lives being lived between Philadelphia, New York and Boston. A young, black "middle-class" family (whatever "middle class" actually is) in those times and in those cities presented daily challenges, but they were not without their perks.

To this day, mom still relays stories of their few years in Beantown in the mid-60s when she and dad would frequent some of the same establishments as Bill Russell or when dad was working at Charles River Park when Carl Yastrzemski lived there. Some of those stories are more quick and comical than they are full of reverence, but they gave a little color to who those athletes were when they were kings and queens of their games.

And yet, the two men that left an unquestioned imprint on my father were Brown and Unitas. Brown because he was the most dominant player at any position in football, the gold standard for which even all current running backs are still measured, no matter how long ago his rushing records have been broken. Johnny U. because, like my dad, the legendary quarterback played semi-pro football on the weekends while working construction jobs to make ends meet. (Unitas, of course, was not just some guy playing on the patched-up fields. My father was a tight end/linebacker/defensive end, but in my mom’s words, “was light in the ass and got knocked around a lot, but he loved playing.”)

When their younger kids (including yours truly) started watching sports, surprisingly neither parent broke out the “back in my day” comparisons that most did when observing the great talents of the 80s and 90s. Instead, it seemed, dad threw in some anecdotes about Brown as we watched Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith tantalize the masses. And when Joe Montana, Dan Marino and even Warren Moon were launching the rock to Jerry Rice, Mark Clayton and Haywood Jeffries, he would remind us of the cerebral mentality Unitas brought to the game.

And with all of that knowledge and appreciation, he never ever broke out the GOAT argument.

Jordan talks with Bryant

There has been much made about the latest edition of LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan as His Airness will turn 50 this weekend. Appropriately, the most famous athlete of all time made the cover of Sports Illustrated for – you guessed it – the 50th time. Immediately, there was ridiculous commentary about how he well he could play TODAY, as if those impromptu practices with his Charlotte Bobcats in recent seasons would indicate anything.

Then, of course, there was the very fair and entertaining question: Who would win a game of one-on-one between Jordan in his prime and James, who has been on a sensational tear this season? On its own merits, the question sets off some spirited debate and fun conversations in the same way that the Dream Team vs. 2012 Olympics team hypothetical match-up did this past summer.

However, just as is the case when someone flirts with one of Wayne Gretzky’s records or is mentioned in the same vein as Babe Ruth – a player very few of the living ever saw play – there are some people who take huge offense that an active great player or team is even considered to be a peer of the all-time greats. And in the many years of watching, writing, talking and learning about these games, these self-perceived slights are so absurd that long ago, with one exception, I stopped believing in The Greatest of All Time in any sport.

I blame the Stans.

For some ungodly reason, the Stans have this uber-passionate focus to the point of obsession as highlighted in the famous Eminem song (though, we hopefully don’t have that many Gil Renard-like people in our stadiums). More often than not, the extremes aren’t as high as those references tell you, but these "defenders of legacy" in sports will always take a discussion just one step too far.

These people feel that legacies are trampled upon and sullied by the mere mention of another player in the same sentence. Not only do they dismiss the excellence of the current athlete, but they will lob professional and personal insults at those who might actually entertain these thoughts.

Maybe this need to defend the acclaimed GOATs comes from more than the game itself. After all, Michael Jordan is the greatest marketed entity since Jesus, and that’s not hyperbole. When a player’s so great that she or he is being presented in a religious-like reverence, it’s almost effortless to join in on the chorus of adulation. (It’s also equally as easy to reject the greatness, be branded a "hater" and embrace the villain role because of the love of getting a reaction.) From that point on, the excellence bestowed upon the fans and media is crystallized forever and, at times, whitewashed with nostalgia.

In defiance of what many writers and readers of TSFJ believe in, debates on who are the GOATs and top __ in sports mean next to nothing to me. In about 15 years, LeBron Stans are going to be offended if another potentially all-time great approaches any of his career marks in the same way Kobe Stans pitch a fit and how Jordan Stans act as if someone committed a capital offense. We already witnessed this just two weeks ago. Some people lost their gourds just seconds after Randy Moss said that he believed he was the greatest wide receiver of all time.

It’s constantly said that debates are what makes sports fun, and for those who love a good banter about box scores filled out long ago, it can be amusing to watch fans assert their knowledge over one another. And yet, there are always people who refuse to believe that sports don’t stop because a legendary player calls it a career. The NFL didn’t fold when Jerry Rice hung up his cleats. Soccer’s managed quite well post-Pele.  And the NBA’s been pretty damn good in the post-Jordan era, don’t you think?

Debates keep sports as a top conversation piece at the bars while filling plenty of airtime on radio stations. Yet, what makes sports fun is actually watching these athletes build upon what came before them while paving new roads themselves. Can’t anyone be happy with letting these men and women, regardless of the game, write their own chapters?

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