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.

14 Replies to “I Don’t Believe in GOATS (Blame The Stans)”

  1. Yep. I’m on board. However, I have to admit, when you talk to reasonable people who actually like to hear the opposing argument and react rationally, the LeBron-Jordan debate is pretty fun.

      1. I do enjoy some of the nuance of the debates. LeBron is such a fascinating athlete that to not be intrigued is a bit criminal.

        Two things that I’ve noticed:

        A) Up until maybe three or four years ago, you heard Oscar Robertson’s name much more often when it came to the discussion of LeBron. The Big O STILL doesn’t get love from those discussing the true greats of the game.

        B) Jordan was the first player I can think of who fans and media accepted that shot a billion times a game. Shouldn’t the purists hate his guts for that?

  2. Excellent piece. Of course, there’s no correct answer to these questions. We all have our built in biases. Like you said, it’s fun to debate. Sports programming is a growth industry and the GOAT discussions are a popular format that brings viewers and listeners.

    Does playing one on one prove who’s the best basketball player? Of course not. Nique would have made Bird and Magic look silly if he got them one on one. They were two of the best passers ever and there’s no passing in one on one.

    1. I swore there have been flirtations with consecutive games with a point. But of course, the guy has so many, it’s pretty tough to chase any single one of them consistently.

      Here’s the thing about #99, I spent four years in the Boston area, with Bobby Orr’s legacy over my head. There are plenty that would pick the bone there. Same as if I was in Detroit with Mr. Howe. It’s fascinating, even if Gretzky transcended the game like no other.

      1. Your point is well taken. Mario scored 199 points one season. Brett Hull bagged 86 goals in another. But this was during Gretzky’s era, and it’s like the closer you get the farther you are away. You’re right,though, Orr, Howe, Richard (if you’re old school like me)have arguments based on geography.
        We shouldn’t put too much stock in these arguments, but they are fun to have.

    1. With respect to Ali, there are plenty of boxing historians and fans of a certain age that would counter with the guy he was likened to as a heavyweight version of; Sugar Ray Robinson. The reason why pound for pound rankings exist in the fight game is because of Ray. Ali, himself, said that Robinson was the GOAT.

      When I think of Ali, I actually feel the same way as I do with Jordan. The legend grew beyond the game in undeniable ways. And yet, Ali once said that he wasn’t the first of his kind when it came to his plight out of the ring. If you haven’t before, watch “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson”.

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