When it comes to GOATS, we don’t all need to be sheep

From Tom Brady to Le­Bron James, it ap­pears the ul­ti­mate su­perla­tive in sports is get­ting passed around a lit­tle too fre­quently

Woonsocket Call - - SPORTS - By JERRY BREWER

Time for a GOAT in­ter­ven­tion, peo­ple. We're ob­sessed with the acro­nym. Ev­ery ex­cel­lent per­son or thing we watch in sports is the great­est of all time, or should be, or can't pos­si­bly be be­cause an old GOAT stole our hearts long ago.

It's all about this ul­ti­mate su­perla­tive, and like a rich dessert, the de­bate is de­li­cious at first, then over­whelm­ing and fi­nally just plain bad for your health. When try­ing to rank and make his­tor­i­cal sense of tran­scen­dent ath­letes from dif­fer­ent eras, there is of­ten no right or wrong, which makes it a per­fectly end­less sports dis­cus­sion. But it does be­come inane. And here's the thing about most GOAT-cal­iber ath­letes: They don't need the ti­tle.

True great­ness doesn't have to lobby to have its great­ness quan­ti­fied. True great­ness is un­der­stood. It lives in that si­lence that over­comes a room when an ex­tra­or­di­nary hu­man be­ing en­ters.

Dur­ing an in­ter­view on "Good Morn­ing Amer­ica" af­ter the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots won Super Bowl LIII, Michael Stra­han, a mem­ber of the Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame, asked six-time cham­pion Tom Brady about be­ing called the GOAT. Brady fid­geted.

"I don't even like that," he told Stra­han. "I don't even like it. It makes me cringe; it makes me cringe; it makes me cringe. I guess I take com­pli­ments worse than I take [crit­i­cism]. I wish you would say: 'You're trash. You're too old. You're too slow. You can't get it done no more.' And I would say: ' Thank you very much. I'm go­ing to go prove you wrong.' "

In­stead, Brady starred in one of the GOAT-iest of all GOAT de­bates. Now that he has matched Michael Jor­dan as a six-ring bearer, ESPN pro­moted a cross-sports de­bate of men­tal at­tri­tion: Is Brady or Jor­dan the greater GOAT? Ah, yes. We're mov­ing on to the GOAT.

If it wasn't hard enough to dis­tin­guish the bril­liance of Jor­dan from Le­Bron James, Bill Rus­sell, Wilt Cham­ber­lain, Ka­reem Ab­dul-Jab­bar and other bas­ket­ball leg­ends - if it wasn't hard enough de­cid­ing among Brady, Jerry Rice, Joe Mon­tana, Jim Brown, Lawrence Tay­lor and other foot­ball gi­ants - try throw­ing two dis­parate sports into the pot and mak­ing a di­gestible ar­gu­ment. And try stump­ing for one un­de­ni­ably great player with­out talk­ing down another, which is what turns th­ese de­bates from in­ter­est­ing to mo­ronic. At the high­est lev­els, great­ness should be unas­sail­able. Prob­lem is, there is no de­fin­i­tive, ac­cepted method to mea­sure the tiny mar­gins that may sep­a­rate the best of the best.

"One chal­lenge, and why there are so many fights, is how do you de­fine great?" said Ed­die O'Con­nor, a clin­i­cal sports psy­chol­o­gist in Grand Rapids, Michi­gan, and a cer­ti­fied con­sul­tant through the As­so­ci­a­tion for Ap­plied Sports Psy­chol­ogy. "What are we talk­ing about? Ev­ery time some­body speaks, they em­pha­size some­thing dif­fer­ent. Un­til there is an agree­ment on spe­cific cri­te­ria that de­fines great, this is go­ing to go on for­ever."

O'Con­nor spe­cial­izes in help­ing ath­letes achieve peak per­for­mance, but this slice of fan and me­dia be­hav­ior was com­pelling enough for him to toss some in­tel­lect into this wrestling match. It's fas­ci­nat­ing to pon­der why some­thing so mean­ing­less mat­ters this much. While it seems the con­ver­sa­tion has in­ten­si­fied, O'Con­nor cau­tions that so­cial me­dia has turned what used to be seg­mented ar­gu­ments into big­ger and louder af­fairs. Your wa­ter cooler, sports bar or bar­ber­shop is now con­nected to all wa­ter cool­ers, sports bars and bar­ber­shops around the world.

In ad­di­tion, you must con­sider that the largest Amer­i­can pro sports leagues are still rel­a­tively young. Ma­jor League Base­ball is the old head, but it has been around for just 150 years. The NFL turns 100 next year. The NBA is al­most 73. In our vast history, the sports world re­mains a puppy. It means that, rel­a­tive to the tales of Earth and hu­man ex­is­tence, there's so lit­tle a record that we are bound to be cap­ti­vated by the evo­lu­tion of ath­letic feats and how dif­fer­ent eras might com­pare. Ul­ti­mately, the sam­ple size re­mains small.

It may seem like you need to em­ploy sci­en­tists to study fos­sils in order to com­pare Sammy Baugh to Aaron Rodgers, but it isn't nec­es­sary. Although it can be dif­fi­cult to mea­sure the very old against the very new, it's com­pre­hen­si­ble, un­like some things in history. Per­haps one day, long af­ter we have left the world and our GOAT bi­ases be­hind, it will take half-cen­turies or cen­turies to mark sig­nif­i­cant change in sports. Right now, it's pos­si­ble to go decade to decade, era to era, gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion.

Cer­tainly, this has been a spe­cial era. It has given us some greats near­ing their end of their runs. To name a few: Brady, James, Ser­ena Wil­liams, Roger Fed­erer, Tiger Woods, Alex Ovechkin, Sid­ney Crosby, Lionel Messi. Let's stop there to give you room for some "Why the hell didn't you men­tion soand-so?" ad­mon­ish­ing. (Be­cause there's noth­ing bet­ter than a col­umn that's flow­ing pretty well, and then it goes on a tan­gen­tial 25-name list just to in­clude ev­ery imag­in­able shout-out, right? Mov­ing on . . .)

In this so­cial me­dia era, the greats el­e­vate their sports with as­ton­ish­ing ac­com­plish­ments and longevity, and as they scale the mountain to­ward eter­nal re­spect, there is a sym­bol wait­ing to greet them: a barn­yard an­i­mal emoji. A goat for the GOAT. Baaaaaa.

What a strange time. But in the gen­er­a­tional war, it mat­ters to mil­len­ni­als that "now" is re­spected. It mat­ters to baby boomers that "then" is not for­got­ten. It mat­ters to ev­ery­one else that they are able to at­tach ex­cel­lence to their gen­er­a­tions, too. This is the most un­der­rated as­pect of the GOAT ob­ses­sion. It's the need to as­so­ciate your life with some­thing won­der­ful. Who wants to ex­ist as an af­ter­thought?

So when James de­clared him­self the GOAT - or, as he has tried to clar­ify, he thought of him­self as the great­est sim­ply in the mo­ment of his great­est ac­com­plish­ment - on an episode of his own dig­i­tal show, the sports world went bonkers. How could he? He could he not?

"That one right there made me the great­est player of all time. . . . That's what I felt," James said dur­ing his "More Than An Ath­lete" se­ries on ESPN, ex­plain­ing frankly his emo­tions af­ter Cleve­land beat Golden State in the 2016 NBA Finals. "I was super, super ec­static to win one for Cleve­land be­cause of the 52-year drought.

The first wave of emo­tion was when ev­ery­one saw me cry­ing - like, that was all for 52 years of ev­ery­thing in sports that's gone on in Cleve­land.

And then af­ter I stopped, I was like, ' That one right there made you the great­est player of all time.' "

Not sure any­one has told him­self he was the great­est since Muham­mad Ali. And he said it at 22 years old, when his name was still Cas­sius Clay. He lived up to it, and in essence, he gave birth to the acro­nym. In fact, in 1992, his wife, Lon­nie, cre­ated G.O.A.T. Inc. to com­bine and pro­tect his in­tel­lec­tual prop­er­ties. It was a shrewd move that even­tu­ally led to a $50 mil­lion li­cens­ing agree­ment for Ali.

So blame The Great­est for the GOAT. And then blame rap­per LL Cool J for his Ali-in­spired al­bum "G.O.A.T." in 2000. Now, the acro­nym is ubiq­ui­tous. And, soon, there will be so many goat (or GOAT) emoji that chil­dren won't even know the an­i­mal ac­tu­ally ex­ists.

The re­al­ity is that there will never be a sin­gu­lar GOAT. It is the com­bi­na­tion of sports great­ness from ev­ery era, and with hu­man evo­lu­tion, ev­ery gen­er­a­tion adds some­thing fresh to the dis­tinc­tion. It's fine, but largely point­less, to ar­gue whether you re­spect the in­no­va­tor or the mas­ter more. Both con­trib­ute to a sports world in which the bar keeps rais­ing.

"We like acronyms be­cause we like things sim­ple," O'Con­nor said. "There's noth­ing wrong with that. As a sports psy­chol­o­gist, I want to take the sim­ple and then show the lay­ers. It all comes down to ex­cel­lence. We are born to grow and strive and see and reach for ex­tremes. We're born to ap­pre­ci­ate it. That's what we so ob­sessed with th­ese tran­scen­dent ath­letes.

"It's like the Mar­vel [Cin­e­matic] Uni­verse, and why those movies are so suc­cess­ful. We love su­per­heroes and sports and amaz­ing phys­i­cal pow­ers. We're in­ter­ested in things out of the or­di­nary. We're fas­ci­nated by it."

And so, in the end, this in­ter­ven­tion was for me, too. When taken care of re­spon­si­bly, the GOAT is just fine. If sports are about thrills, if sports are about evo­lu­tion, why not be­lieve there can be some­thing greater than the great­est?

GOAT on, peo­ple. But let's all agree to limit the ar­gu­ments to 30 min­utes, OK?

Photo by Louri­ann Mardo-Zayat / lmzart­works.com

Pa­tri­ots quar­ter­back Tom Brady, pic­tured against Min­nesota this past sea­son, is no fan of be­ing called a GOAT, some­thing he made quite clear dur­ing a re­cent post-Super Bowl ap­pear­ance on ABC’s “Good Morn­ing Amer­ica.”

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