Sports of The Times
Athletes from Tom Brady to Serena Williams to LeBron James have all been tabbed the Greatest of All Time. Faced with the term’s pervasive use, our columnist considers how sports heroes become transcendent.
If you are reading this column, I have great news: You’re the GOAT!
That’s right: Among those who have happened upon this space, I deem you the Greatest Reader of All Time.
Then again, if you’re LeBron James, or Serena Williams, or Nikola Jokic — with that sparkling N.B.A. championship ring — well, you already know you’re the GOAT. Everyone has been saying so.
“Bahhh, bahhh, bahhh,” goes the bleating of a goat. It’s also the sound made by James’s Los Angeles Lakers teammates when he walks into the locker room. GOAT hosannas are practically the soundtrack of his life.
Driven by its pervasive usage around sports, five years ago the wordsmiths at Merriam-Webster entered the term GOAT in the dictionary as an acronym and a noun.
Defining the term as “the most accomplished or successful individual in the history of a particular sport or category of performance or activity,” a Merriam-Webster editor nodded to the pervasive use of Tom Brady’s name along with GOAT in a popular search engine as an example of why the acronym had become dictionary official.
Yeah, I know — this GOAT thing, it’s a little confusing. To be the greatest implies singularity, no? But now there are GOATs everywhere we turn.
Even worse than the acronym’s overuse is its doltish simplicity. There’s not enough nuance. Too much emphasis on outright winning, not enough on overcoming.
What are our options here? Maybe we should ban the use of the term outright in sports, following the lead of Lake Superior State University, which cheekily ranked the hazy, lazy acronym No. 1 on its 2023 list of banished words.
“The many nominators didn’t have to be physicists or grammarians to determine the literal impossibility and technical vagueness of this wannabe superlative,” read a statement from the university.
Banning doesn’t quite seem like a possibility, however — not when a word has bored a hole this deep into our collective consciousness.
No doubt, being a goat isn’t what it used to be. In sports, it was once a terrible insult, a term of shame hung on athletes who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Greg Norman, otherwise known as the Shark, was a goat for coughing up a six-stroke lead in the final round of the 1996 Masters, a tournament he lost by five strokes.
Before Norman, there was the Boston Red Sox’ grounder-through-the legs-at-the-worst-possible-World-Series-moment goat, Bill Buckner.
Need I say more?
Muhammad Ali is widely credited with first injecting the Greatest of All Time into the mix. When he went by Cassius Clay in the early 1960s, he recorded a comedy album anchored by the title poem, “I Am the Greatest.”
After his upset win over George Foreman in 1974, he added a flourish, admonishing his doubters and critics, and reminding them of his status: “I told you I am still the greatest of all times!”
But was it really Ali who came up with this particular egotistic flourish?
Some say GOAT’s origins actually spring from a flamboyant, blond-tressed wrestler, George Wagner, who was known as Gorgeous George and who in the 1940s and ’50s earned lavish paydays by turning trash talk into fine art.
In a precursor to W.W.E.-style braggadocio, Gorgeous George once claimed before a big fight that if he lost, he would “crawl across the ring and cut my hair off!” He added, “But that’s not going to happen, because I’m the greatest wrestler in the world.”
Ali said he had learned a good chunk of his boastfulness from Gorgeous George.
“A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth,” the wrestler is said to have told Ali after a chance meeting. “So keep on bragging, keep on sassing, and always be outrageous.”
This week marks the moment when sport’s most legitimate GOAT talk hovers over tennis and an event its organizers not-so-humbly call the Championships.
Wimbledon starts Monday. The men’s favorite, Novak Djokovic, has 23 Grand Slam tournament titles, one short of Margaret Court’s record of 24. If he wins this year, his wildly devoted fan base will confidently proclaim the Serb’s GOAT status.
That will drive fans of Rafael Nadal, who is stuck at 22 major titles, to distraction. They will argue that their idol would have won 25 major titles (or more) by now, if not for injuries.
Then Roger Federer devotees will wade in. He had losing records against both Nadal and Djokovic. But, by goodness, he’s Roger Federer, fine linen with a forehand with 20 Slams and a raft of epic final-round battles to his name.
Not so fast, Serena Williams adherents will remind. Not only does she have 23 Grand Slam titles — including one earned while she was pregnant — Williams braved playing in a mostly white sport and bent it to her will. Besides, she’s as much a cultural icon as an athlete. Can any male player say that?
Then there are the old-school partisans of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King. Stop the unfairness, they will shout. No more comparing superlative athletes from vastly different eras.
Time has changed everything in every sport — better equipment, better training methods, new rules — so how can we reliably compare? Before McEnroe lost to Borg in the 1980 Wimbledon final, neither had the benefit of sleeping, as Djokovic reportedly does, in a performance-enhancing hypobaric chamber.
On and on the argument will go.
That’s the craziness of it. The foolishness and the fun of it.
Who’s the GOAT?
Well, to be honest, I’ve got four. Willie Mays. Joe Montana. Williams. Federer.
I can remember each for their sublime victories, of course. But also their stumbles. A 42-year-old Mays lost in the outfield. A fragile Montana in his twilight, playing not for San Francisco but Kansas City.
I was on hand to see Williams struggle and come up short as she chased that elusive last Slam. I sat feet from Federer as he held two match points against Djokovic in the Wimbledon final of 2019. Then the Swiss crumbled in defeat.
“For now it hurts, and it should — every loss hurts at Wimbledon,” Federer said at the post-match news conference. But, he added, he would persevere. “I don’t want to be depressed about actually an amazing tennis match.”
No one escapes disappointment and frailty. But if we do it right, we soldier on.
You know what that means? It means all of us can be GOATs!
Bleat on, my friends. Bleat on!
Kurt Streeter writes the Sports of The Times column. More about Kurt Streeter