Thursday, September 20, 2007

Is This the Golden Age of Sports?

There is a natural tendency to wax nostalgic about the "good old days," a period of time that almost always coincides with when a person was somewhere between eight and 18 years of age. Never mind that sports had plenty of problems--racism, labor disputes, drugs to name just three--in past decades; to many people, the 1970s or the 1980s seem in retrospect to be the "good old days," just like the 1950s or the 1960s seemed like the "good old days" 20 or 30 years ago. What if I told you that right now we are living in a golden age of sports that is likely to be looked upon as the "good old days" in 10 or 20 years? Perhaps that sounds absurd coming on the heels of headlines screaming about various scandals and misdeeds but if we divert our attention away from the negative and depressing stories then we can notice something that is very interesting: it could be reasonably argued that the greatest player ever is currently performing at or near his peak not in just one or two sports but in several sports, including each of the proverbial "big three."

Let's start with the most obvious case: Tiger Woods, whose scoring average this year (67.79) is tied for the best of his career (he had the same mark in 2000 when he won three majors). Woods just claimed the first annual FedEx Cup (and its $10 million first prize) and he already ranks fifth in career PGA Tour wins with 61, just one behind Arnold Palmer and three behind Ben Hogan; all-time leader Sam Snead won 82 events. Most golf aficionados believe that Woods cannot claim to be the greatest golfer ever until he surpasses Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championships won. Woods has already won 13 majors and is four years ahead of Nicklaus' pace, so it certainly looks like it is just a matter of time until Woods surpasses Nicklaus' standard. Woods says, "When all is said and done, when you rack the cue and go home and retire, you can honestly say, 'These were my best years, when I was at my peak.' But when you're in it, you're always trying to improve that a little bit to get to the next level." That attitude and drive is why Woods will eventually own all of the important golf records--and when he "racks the cue" we will likely look back and say that he was at or near his peak in 2007.

Meanwhile, switching to tennis, Roger Federer's fourth straight U.S. Open title is his 12th Grand Slam win, moving him past Bjorn Borg and into a tie with Roy Emerson for second on the all-time list, which is led by Pete Sampras (14). Many people already believe that Federer is the greatest tennis player ever, although at least one author suggests that Federer still has some work to do to surpass Rod Laver, Bill Tilden and Bjorn Borg. In any case, virtually everyone agrees that if Federer maintains his current pace for a few more years then he can lay claim to the title of greatest tennis player ever--and if he does, we will more than likely look back and conclude that he was at or near the height of his powers in 2007.

Individual greatness is more difficult to quantify in team sports. Joe Dimaggio used to insist that he be called the greatest living baseball player, which neatly avoided the issue of whether or not he was better than Babe Ruth. Ted Williams wanted to be known as the greatest hitter who ever lived. Willie Mays is considered by many to be the greatest all-around player when one factors in speed and defense in addition to hitting. The all-time home run record was broken this season by a player who could lay an excellent claim to the title of greatest baseball player ever were it not for the mushroom-size cloud of suspicion that taints his statistics. Whether you like Barry Bonds or not, we can all agree that he is not at the height of his powers now--but Alex Rodriguez, who is hitting .308 with 52 home runs and 142 RBI, is having one of the best seasons of his career and is probably going to win his third AL MVP. Rodriguez may very well own the career home run record just a few years from now and if he picks up even one World Series ring along the way then he will be on the short list of players who are in the discussion for the title of greatest all-around baseball player ever. Despite the incessant criticism that Rodriguez receives, when his career is over and viewed through a more objective lens it may very well be said that in 2007--at the age of 31--he, like Woods and Federer, was at the height of his powers.

Like baseball, football does not have a consensus greatest player of all-time. Jim Brown would certainly receive many votes and Jerry Rice--the all-time leader in receptions and touchdowns scored--is also in the discussion. Last year, LaDainian Tomlinson shattered the all-time single season records for touchdowns scored and for points scored. The latter mark stood since 1960 and was held by Hall of Famer Paul Hornung, who was a kicker and a running back. It is worth mentioning that Hornung scored 176 points in 12 games, while Tomlinson produced 186 points in 16 games, but even if one still gives Hornung the nod based on points per game Tomlinson's achievement is remarkable because until fairly recently Hornung's mark looked unbreakable even in the longer season. Tomlinson may very well surpass Rice's career touchdown record while at the same time breaking Brown's record for average all-purpose yards per game. Marty Schottenheimer, Tomlinson's coach last year, has already called Tomlinson the finest running back he has ever seen. Granted, it is more than a bit early to call Tomlinson the greatest football player ever but the point is that the possibility certainly exists that he will be on the short list for consideration for that title by the time his career is over--and his record breaking 2007 campaign will likely stand out as one of his best seasons.

Most observers would probably agree that pro basketball's pantheon consists of the top 10 finishers in the 1999 AP panel's vote for Basketball Player of the Century: Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Earvin Johnson, Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Julius Erving. Shaquille O'Neal could arguably be added to that group but he is clearly well past his prime now. Tim Duncan also deserves mention but his best years statistically are also likely behind him, though he may very well anchor more championship teams. However, there are two active players who are at or near their primes who have an excellent chance to join the pantheon: Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Bryant appears to be doing Jordan's career in reverse and on a smaller scale, winning three championships early and collecting scoring titles now. Although Bryant has yet to win an MVP, most informed and objective observers consider him to be the best player in the game (James--and many other players--agree with that). If Bryant continues to perform at a high level individually and/or adds at least one more championship then his resume will stack up with the best of the best--and it will probably be thought that he was at the height of his individual powers the past couple years, when he seemingly could score at will. James is also a highly potent scorer and last season he proved that he could carry a team all the way to the NBA Finals. His best years are likely still in front of him but when we look back 2006-07 will at the very least probably be considered the start of his prime, the beginning of his ascension to the very top of the basketball world. If things break right--and admittedly a lot would have to happen--perhaps we will be fortunate enough to see Bryant and James battle against each other head to head in the Finals (or earlier in the playoffs if Bryant is traded to an Eastern Conference team or signs with one when he becomes a free agent).

Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Alex Rodriguez, Kobe Bryant/LeBron James, LaDainian Tomlinson--yes, these are the "good old days."


Anonymous said...

Every word written was true, that was a really good year for sports.

However, it is odd that of all those mentioned, only LeBron is still elite in his sport.

This kind of thoughtful pieces regarding the state of sports/a league are awesome. Thanks for all the awesome content you've put on this site.


David Friedman said...


You're welcome; I am glad that you appreciate the articles that I have posted here.

I do not think that it is very odd that after six years there has been a changing of the guard in several sports; most of the athletes mentioned in this article were in their primes in 2007 and an athlete's prime generally does not last six years or more.