Tuning Up - Spring 2023

Milking the G.O.A.T.

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Why are we so obsessed with anointing the very best?

By Eric Wills | March 1, 2023
Illustration by Eric Hanson
Illustration by Eric Hanson

Who is the G.O.A.T., the greatest of all time? Tennis fans and pundits alike will consider that question anew now that Roger Federer has retired and Serena Williams has decided to “evolve” away from the sport. Chances are, if you’re a tennis fan, you already have strong opinions on the matter. Perhaps you believe that Federer, who elevated the game to a quasi-mystical level (David Foster Wallace famously likened watching him play to a religious experience), and Williams, who transformed the sport in her own way, are indeed the G.O.A.T.s.

Maybe you harbor strong opinions about the G.O.A.T.s in other sports, too: Michael or LeBron, Tiger or Jack, Marta or Mia Hamm, Brady or Montana, Taurasi or Swoopes. How would LeBron James have fared in Michael Jordan’s bare-knuckle NBA? Would Tiger have vanquished Nicklaus’s rivals—Gary Player, Tom Watson—golfers who didn’t fade into oblivion on the Sunday of a major? Did Lionel Messi, in delivering World Cup glory to Argentina, rise above Maradona and Pelé? These debates can make for a nostalgic trip into the sporting past, giving talking heads an excuse for ratings-driven histrionics. Witness the latest TV sparring over the newly retired Tom Brady.

But I’d contend that we’ve grown overly infatuated with bestowing G.O.A.T. status on our sporting heroes, and that this obsession has become a hollow sideshow, a lot of empty sound bites, signifying (almost) nothing. Forget that in its annual tongue-in-cheek Banished Word List, Lake Superior State University just called out “G.O.A.T.” as the most egregious for its “overuse, misuse, and uselessness.” The point is, there’s no way to compare players from different eras without resorting to wild speculation, and in most cases, a recency bias plagues these discussions—it’s almost always a player from this generation who wears the crown. When did we become so obsessed with this reductionist ritual, this anointing of the chosen one?

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