Opinion | Greatness debates distract from greatness

By Nick Johnson, Senior Columnist

The “GOAT” — the greatest of all time. This term finds itself tossed around quite frequently in conversation circles, yet its gravity never seems to be effectively transmitted in proportion to how often it is uttered. Saying someone is the greatest to ever do the thing they are doing is a supremely potent declaration.

In making such a proclamation, one is holding a singular individual above everyone to come before this individual in their respected field. To identify one person as definitively superior over the rest in a certain category is an incredibly difficult task, which consequently leads to many debates about who is the proper GOAT of their realm.

Sadly, these debates almost always lead people to get so caught up in their arguments for who they believe is the greatest that their ability to appreciate greatness right in front of them is significantly hampered.

This phenomenon is most present in the realm of sports. Most recently, the football world was reminded once again that a plethora of fans would rather continue to resolutely rant that there will never be a greater quarterback than Dan Marino or Joe Montana than appreciate the fact that 43-year-old Tom Brady just won his seventh Super Bowl.

An example familiar to every Illinoisan is the GOAT debate in the game of basketball between Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Plenty may sensibly argue that LeBron will never reach the echelon of greatness in which Jordan resides with his six championship rings and flawless NBA Finals record, but too many will let their opinion morph into an antipathy toward James.

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In allowing their infatuation with Jordan to germinate into a hatred for James, this overly pro-MJ crowd does not allow themselves to enjoy James breaking the 35,000 point barrier and being the frontrunner for league MVP in his 18th season. It’s hard to imagine someone holding so steadfastly to an opinion they cannot even entertain the idea of appreciating such historic feats.

Unfortunately, one need not imagine — there are troves of people who presently suffer from this opinion-driven, self-inflicted ailment.

It should be noted that underscoring this harmful attitude within greatness debates is not synonymously a sweeping critique of passionate sports fans. If a fan’s favorite team is home to a player skilled enough to be included in conversations of all-time greatness, they will rightfully feel strongly about defending their player. 

However, there is a line to be drawn between supporting one side of an argument and defending a stance with such hostility that greatness is effectively ignored.

Perhaps the most poignant example to ever plague the sports world is the greatest-of-all-time debate between uber-talented futbolistas Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Apart from these two perennial stars, one name typically comes to mind in the conversation of the greatest soccer player ever — Pelé.

Edson Arantes do Nascimento, more commonly known as Pelé, is the Brazilian-born fútbol phenom who is hailed by many as the greatest to ever set foot on the pitch. Renowned as a World Cup legend and a prolific goalscorer, Pelé won 28 titles across all competitions and scored 683 club goals throughout his career.

Lionel Messi has won 35 titles across all competitions and Cristiano Ronaldo has garnered 33. Messi has scored 655 club goals and Ronaldo has netted a whopping 663 — and both of them are still in the primes of their careers.

The current race to the title of GOAT in the soccer world is unlike any seen before. Messi and Ronaldo are within 28 club goals of the tally Pelé posted at the end of his storied career and both of them are currently leading their respective top-flight leagues in goals scored, showing absolutely no signs of slowing.

However, once again, rather than appreciating the incomparably historic careers these two legendary attacking forwards are simultaneously having — a privilege the world is unlikely to ever witness again — overly-staunch fans of each player would still rather diminish the accomplishments of the other to prove a point.

GOAT debates are fun and, arguably, even necessary. By design, debating greatness is meant to highlight the different skills and accomplishments of a craft’s most revered artisans and in turn, augment appreciation for what they’ve done — but appreciation is rarely the product of these conversations. 

One must be careful to engage in such discussions with the goal of appreciation rather than winning an argument, lest they miss greatness right before their eyes.

 Nick is a sophomore in LAS.

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