On Sunday morning, I awoke to a Twitter timeline filled with goat emojis. Contrary to my first thought, it turns out I didn’t drunkenly follow a bunch of farming accounts, but that Roger Federer, the men’s tennis player that many consider to be the “Greatest of All-Time” (i.e. GOAT), had won his record 20th Grand Slam tournament. The goat emoji hasn’t been limited to tennis this past week, as there have been many discussions about Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s greatness with his record eighth Super Bowl appearance, including a slightly ridiculous ESPN article trying to decide who is the “greatest GOAT”, Brady or Michael Jordan. Even LeBron James had a GOAT moment this week, becoming the youngest and seventh-total NBA player to score 30,000 regular season points.
Sports fans, myself included, take debates about who is the GOAT in a given sport very seriously, which is quite senseless in the grand scheme of things. These debates normally happen early, as in they start when players are still active and merely on the path to being the GOAT, and resolve around two players that represent opposing ideals. As such, I believe it says a lot about a person’s character which one of the two players in this debate they argue for and when they can admit they supported the wrong player as more evidence comes in (seasons are played).
I used to be firmly in the Peyton Manning over Brady camp, for good reason as well, but I will concede that Brady has had the greatest NFL career ever. Similarly, I, like most, was on the side of Tiger Woods vs. whichever old white historical golfer one might pit against him, but we truly could not have predicted what would happen with his career. However, whether the debate is Federer vs. Rafael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Lionel Messi, Diana Taurasi vs. Maya Moore or one of countless others, both players involved are adored by the sporting community. Even a great player that is disliked by some such as Cristiano Ronaldo is appreciated by all for his athletic contributions.
It is interesting how fans feel about great athletes compared to great teams; while the Lebron James’ and Serena Williams’ of the world are pretty much universally highly regarded, consistently dominant teams such as the Golden State Warriors, Real Madrid, New York Yankees, Duke/UConn basketball and New England Patriots are hated and have their achievements discounted by fans of most other teams. Depending on which team they are talking about, fans justify their feelings by saying that they “bought their success” (Yankees, Real Madrid), “are too good for the game” (UConn, Warriors), “cheated” (Patriots) and “have obnoxious fans and players” (all, especially Duke).
None of these statements are false, but there are many teams that fall into one of these categories (besides the “too good for the game one”, which is a ridiculous statement) without constant success, and they do not receive the same amount of disrespect. For example, a member of the St. Louis Cardinals’ front office was recently found guilty of hacking into the Houston Astros player database to have access to their analytics, but I haven’t seen anyone use this to justify hating the Cardinals; if this had been the Yankees who had done this, it would have been a much bigger deal.
On the surface, the idea that “people hate greatness” does not explain this behavior, as with individual players it appears that fans do appreciate continued excellence, but with teams, they look for reasons to discount it. One component of it is that teams represent cities or universities in a way that individual athletes don’t, and thus feelings towards a team can be symbolic of more broad issues about the groups they represent. Nevertheless, this cannot entirely explain the situation, because, for example, what does anyone hate about UConn besides its women’s basketball team? I think there is something unnatural about sustained excellent teams that makes fans look for reasons to overlook their eminence, because the team should not be this way; great players are expected to stay that way for a long time, but teams, since there are many constantly changing parts, should see a higher variance in performance. I guess this is a roundabout way of saying when people appreciate the greatness of Tom Brady during this Super Bowl, they should also be tweeting out goat emojis for the Patriots, since their achievements are arguably just as impressive and should be appreciated as such.
Contact Ben Spar at bspar ‘at’ stanford.edu.