Thursday, August 23, 2007

Who's the best ?

A favorite topic among sports fans is "Who's the best?" Who's the greatest quarterback of all time? What's the best NBA team of all-time? Who is the best hitter in baseball? Questions like these provide hours of passionate debate for fans, sports talk radio shows, broadcasters, and athletes themselves. Unfortunately, it's an almost impossible question with hundreds of variables that most people don't consider. Why?

1. It's a completely subjective question. There are no standard measures. Statistics factor in, but don't tell the whole story. Who's better - Bird or Magic? There is no right answer, only opinion.

2. Biases. As objective as someone may try to be, their biases inevitably factor in. People naturally tend to favor athletes from there own era because they have seen them play with their own eyes. As a result, athletes from previous decades are overlooked, or dismissed because most people today don't believe they could compete with today's athletes. And then you simply have favorites - favorite players, favorite teams, favorite coaches. Everybody has them, even sports reporters. An irritating trend among sports media today is to throw every hot new athlete into the "greatest of all-time" argument. When a team wins more than one championship, the word "dynasty" immediately tossed around. It's as if they are trying to manufacture greatness in order to give the here and now a sense of significance.

3. You can't compare eras. To demonstrate how impossible this is, I'll pose this question - Who is the best golfer of all time? Only two names are even in the debate: Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. Nearly everyone today would immediately say Tiger. He's only 31 years old and has 13 major championships. Nicklaus has the record at 18 majors, but didn't win his 13th major until age 35. Woods has also posted much better scores than Nicklaus in majors and has a higher winning percentage than Nicklaus through the first 11 years of their careers.

Case Closed? Not if we factor in competition and technology.

During his career, Nicklaus competed against such greats as Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson, each of whom have more than five major championships. Outside of Tiger, no one in the current era can be considered great. Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, and Ernie Els are good players, but not in the same class as Jack's competition. Why does this matter? Well, Tiger runs away from the competition in most of his wins. What if he had the likes of Watson or Trevino breathing down his neck like Jack did? Could he handle the pressure? It's an important question, considering Tiger hasn't performed all that well when the score is close.

What about the technology of the clubs? Engineers have turned drivers into rocket launchers, changing the game dramatically. Players today rely on driving distance far more than in Jack's era. So this begs the question, what kind of scores would Nicklaus, Palmer and Player put up with today's clubs?

As you can see, the question of "who's the best" becomes muddled when you consider all the factors. And golf is an easy one compared to other sports.

So, how do you judge the best?

Quality of competition This includes the quality of the players or teams in a given era, but also the depth of competition. Example: The quality of competition among heavyweight boxers in the 1970s is widely considered to be far greater than it is now.

Quantity of competition In 1955 the NHL was composed of six teams with two rounds of playoffs. Today there are 30 teams and four rounds of playoffs . Although one can make the argument that talent gets diluted in larger leagues and thus making it easier to win, more teams mean more games and more opportunities to lose.

Technology The improved technology of rackets, clubs, balls, pads, helmets, shoes, and turf have all made huge impacts in their respective sports, and so must be taken into consideration.

Sports Medicine Injuries that were once career ending can be overcome in a matter of months today. Advancements in training and diet have augmented the performance of athletes dramatically in recent years. Athletes today are bigger, faster and stronger than ever before. These changes have affected perhaps affected football more than any other sport.

X-factors Steroids and performance enhancing drugs. Racial segregation that for years kept many of the best players from participating, so Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gherig never had to play against some of the best competition. Rule changes from year to year, era to era. The amount of travel involved with teams today. The number of night games today (baseball). Player salaries. Domed versus open stadiums.

In light of these factors, one cannot ask questions like "Who would win a game between the 2004 New Enland Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 70s?" Why? Because the Patriots would destroy them 84-0. In football, the differences in 30 years are immeasurable. That doesnt' mean the Steelers weren't a better team. They won four Super Bowls and dominated football in the 1970s.

The bottom line is that when asking "Who's the best," one must measure a team or player's accomplishments against the era in which they played, while taking all of the factors of that era into consideration.

So who's better, Bird or Magic?



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