As 34-year-old Serbian tennis legend Novak Djokovic began mowing down his opponents en route to a US Open Finals appearance this past month, it occurred to me that what I was watching was more than just a great tennis player. Perhaps I was watching the Greatest Of All Time. Djokovic, the youngest of a trio of racket-swinging excellence completed by all-time greats Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, was in the midst of one of the most dominant stretches in tennis history that could have ended with him standing alone as the sport’s most accomplished player. With all three tied at 20 Grand Slam titles, a win would have put Djokovic at the top of the majors’ heap while also netting him the Calendar Grand Slam (winning the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open in the same year) — a feat that was last accomplished by Rod Laver in 1969, before the Open Era began.
But then as Djokovic’s Finals loss to second-ranked Daniil Medvedev sank in and the screen in my Lower East Side bar switched mercilessly from tennis to NFL football, I felt ashamed. Not for thinking that Djokovic was the greatest player I’d ever seen, but for nearly succumbing to the wave of GOAT-talk sports journalism that too often dominates the sports-talk conversation across hot-take shows, social media, and even your average update segments. Should I have definitively named Djokovic the greatest tennis player of all time, the argument would’ve been there for the taking. He’s spent the most weeks (338) as the number one ranked tennis player in the world. In an era dominated by likely the three best tennis players ever, he has winning records against both Federer (27-23) and Nadal (30-28). Add on the 21st Grand Slam that is sure to come, and he’s got a strong case for being the GOAT. But who am I — or anyone else — to write history before it happens? Doing so not only removes any kind of context from the event but also undermines the sport itself. Federer (40) or Nadal (35) could wake up tomorrow morning rejuvenated and dominate Djokovic for the next five years. Or maybe a young star such as Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, or Stefanos Tsitsipas — the youngest of them being 25 — will emerge in the coming years as a threat to Joker’s legacy. Who’s the GOAT then?
Admittedly, tennis, like most individual sports, is an area where counting championships and wins is conducive to finding your likely GOAT. The athlete must rely on him or herself solely; no teammates to carry or drag them down, no moment when they aren’t on the field of play, and no play they cannot completely control. The problem is that the GOAT talk on the major networks rarely bothers with the less-popular athletic endeavors, and instead takes aim at today’s moneymakers: mostly football and basketball. And the result of that is not only an inconsistent basis for finding our greatest athletes ever, but a gross penchant for throwing context out the window while we let the superlative game gain more consequence than the actual game.
By far the most egregious “argument,” one that has nearly monopolized modern GOAT talk, claims Tom Brady is undeniably the best quarterback to ever step on a football field simply because he has won the most Super Bowl championships in NFL history. Ever since he won his sixth — and then seventh — Super Bowl, you’ve heard it, read it, and likely had it whispered into your ear by a trespassing Colin Cowherd as you slept.
But if you’re brave enough to commit the thoughtcrime, the NFL’s GOAT debate is clearly more complex than just who possesses the most Super Bowl rings. In fact, if you wanted to follow the logic of more rings = more skill, you’d find some really wonky results like Joe Flacco (1 Super Bowl victory) > Dan Marino (none), Trent Dilfer (1) = Aaron Rodgers (1) or Eli Manning (2) > Drew Brees (1). Just a bit off, right? After all, football is, you know, a team sport. A quarterback can only do so much on a 53-man roster that’s divided into three separate units: offense, defense, and special teams. Even then, he has little impact on how half of his own offensive unit (the run game) performs.
The reality is that Brady has had an unprecedented amount of help in those areas where he has no control. Combining his stints in both New England and Tampa Bay, he’s been blessed with having a top-ten defense in 17 of his 19 seasons as a starter and has without fail been backed up by a top-eight unit (including three top-two’s) in each of his seven Super Bowl wins. For context, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers (Brady’s contemporaries) have had 13 top-ten defenses combined. In these times it’s pertinent to remember the old Bear Bryant adage: “Defense wins championships.”
Then when you break down the individual stats, there’s an argument to be had that Brady has never been the most dominant player at his position at any point in his career. Peyton Manning was far and away a better passer from 2001-2010 (an average of 4,254 passing yards and 31 touchdowns per season to Brady’s 3,473 and 26) while Rodgers took off in 2011, setting records for passer rating and TD/INT ratio while winning three MVPs to Brady’s one since then. Then somewhere in the last couple of years, Patrick Mahomes II introduced himself as well. The point being, with legitimate (and often convincing) cases that the proven winners in Manning and Rodgers have been better players than Brady, you cannot logically name Tom the definitive GOAT solely because of the championships he’s won with more help than any of his rivals could even dream of.
Furthermore, the games that supposedly vault Brady into GOAT status have been heavily influenced by efforts he had no part in. In his last two Super Bowl wins, Brady’s defenses have held the Chiefs (2020’s sixth-best offense) and the Los Angeles Rams (2018’s second-best offense) to 12 points — combined. In 2015, he was on the cusp of losing against the Seattle Seahawks before Russell Wilson threw a bone-headed interception at the one-yard line that sealed the game. In his first championship in 2002 against the (St. Louis) Rams, Brady threw for just 145 yards and a touchdown. Am I the only one who thinks it’s ludicrous to examine the context of these games and declare them individual achievements that decisively shut down the GOAT debate? Especially when Brady’s playoff passer rating lags significantly behind guys like Rodgers, Brees, and – ahem – Mark Sanchez?
Not completely, because when we move on to basketball, the conversation is entirely different. The debates filling the airways these days have almost exclusively been centered around two NBA players: Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan and Los Angeles Lakers (among other teams) superstar LeBron James. But why, we can ask, in a sport where individual performance in a single game is exponentially more valuable than in football, is the rule of “more championships equals better player” thrown away? By the absolutism of the Brady argument, shouldn’t Boston Celtics center Bill Russell be the NBA’s GOAT because of his record 11 championships, no questions asked? (And the same in baseball with Yankees legend Yogi Berra’s 10 World Series rings?) No, because this is a more nuanced debate where having more rings (even Jordan’s six to LeBron’s four) still leaves room for interpretation and subjectivity between perhaps the two best basketball players ever.
Unfortunately, that room for interpretation has been blasted open into another world as hot take shows and sports panels take every opportunity they can to point to this or that moment which could help James “catch up” to or exceed Jordan’s legacy. Is LeBron the GOAT over MJ if he wins his fifth ring?, ESPN asks. LeBron is the undisputed GOAT if he beats the Nets, another segment is headlined. But it doesn’t stop with these two players. During the height of the Golden State Warriors championship window, the hype was around guard Stephen Curry being the greatest shooter to ever live. More recently, rumblings of Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant entering the overall GOAT conversation have surfaced.
Yes, conversations are important, but we’ve reached a point where we’ve started overlooking the greatness of this generation’s best players in the name of either affirming or denying their status as the single greatest ever. In the same breath, the games themselves have become means to an end as we continuously put labels on certain matches or series as milestones that could birth another GOAT. In a sense, the actual playing of the sport has been trivialized in a culture that is so often laser-focused on a bigger-picture historic outcome that so rarely pays off.
Of course, the instigation of these conversations is no mistake. Rarely, if ever, do we see the reignition of debates around, say, the GOAT, Muhammad Ali, whose once in a lifetime skill, ultra star power, and the fact that his wife copyrighting “G.O.A.T Inc” in 1992 is one of the earliest iterations of the phrase, all compile to make his case for the greatest boxer to ever live. And forget about hockey, where Wayne Gretzky — dubbed “the Great One” — was so dominant that you could subtract the entirety of his NHL-leading 894 goals and he’d still have enough assists to hold the record for most total points in NHL history. These are the men for whom the semantic shift of the sports goat occurred — as some may remember, the “goat” label used to be sports’ lowest honor, not its highest. But gone are the days when notorious Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman was called the goat for interfering with an infield play that might’ve cost his team a World Series appearance, or when a 1958 Charlie Brown strip read: “So I drop a fly ball and we lose the championship! I could have been the hero…Instead, I’m the goat!”
In a social media era where the NFL and NBA have risen dramatically in popularity — and their players routinely reach celebrity status — the major networks have capitalized. Brady, James, and others are the now — and a mixture of that pop-culture prominence, modern exceptionalism, and the need for instant gratification creates a perfect storm for a demographic that wants to see history and wants it now. Never mind any effort at consistency. Watching sports for sport’s sake be damned.
Instead, superfluous debate disguised as a journalistic obligation to convey the significance of our modern-day greats and their achievements will continue to control the way we evaluate and remember them.
And when you’re going up against the GOAT — whichever one may be in fashion at the time — good luck getting your due. Because whether you’re a rookie phenom or a Hall of Famer, you’ll always be in the shadow of someone bigger, always in some convoluted pursuit of greatness that was manufactured for the hot-take culture, and always undermined as you’re measured not in relation to your peers, but to the supposed greatest player in your profession’s entire history.
In today’s landscape, you might as well be that old-fashioned, lowercase ”g” goat. ❖