A few years ago, Muhammad Ali's wife, Lonnie, gave me her business card. And the name of her company was: GOAT, Inc.
That really took me aback because one of the great slurs in sport is exactly that . . . goat. A goat is a player whose blunder cost the game. The goat is adorned with the cuckold's horns.
But when I looked more closely at Lonnie Ali's card, I saw that "GOAT" was an acronym for, well, the absolute opposite of goat. G-O-A-T stood for Greatest Of All Time. And if Mrs. Ali, with a preemptive strike, had declared her husband the GOAT boxer, the term has since migrated into other sports, and these last few weeks have been a veritable GOAT-fest of arguments.
The urge to ascend a superstar to exalted GOAT status is always strong because so many sports fans are what I call "presentists." To these students of GOATdom, the best athletes can only be those performing now, in the present. That's because athletes are bigger than their forebears, and literal records prove everything. Thus, because he holds the current hundred-meter record, Usain Bolt is ipso facto the GOAT sprinter, and someone like Jesse Owens is a has-been. Hey, say the presentists, just look at the little guy's times.
Moreover, fans today pay so much money they want to believe that what they're seeing is the best ever. It's sort of ironic, because in other arts it's the old masters from the past who are the GOATS. Current painters, composers and actors are never so good.
Of course, it's always more difficult choosing a GOAT in team sports because you can't simply be intrinsically the best individual. You must possess complementary team value, as well. The rising babble about LeBron James being even more talented than Michael Jordan plummeted when James' team lost in the playoffs. But Tiger Woods and Roger Federer don't have to worry about teammates. They win a tournament, it's their's alone, and so as soon as Federer won his French Open a couple of weeks ago to complete his career sweep of the four Grand Slams, his GOAT stock soared.
Comparing Federer's record to Rod Laver's is trickier than comparing Tiger Woods to Jack Nicklaus, though, because tennis was still a so-called shamateur game for much of Laver's career, with legitimate pros locked out of the tournaments that mattered. So, the Laver-Federer GOAT dispute remains ongoing, while Woods seems to have already eclipsed Nicklaus in most golf GOAT arguments.
It isn't Woods' fault, but as he goes for another U.S. Open championship this week, what he has missed is a real foil, an almost-GOAT to keep challenging him -- as Nicklaus had Palmer, Player, Trevino and Watson, as Ali had Frazier, as Laver had Rosewall, as Federer has Nadal. Thus, while Joe Louis fought what were called the bums of the month, Woods pretty much plays the, well, the ordinaries of the week. So Tiger may well be the GOAT, but he's also the cheese, standing alone. His eminence is in relative isolation.