A record number of home runs, endless baskets made from far behind the three-point line, and effortless passes landing a team in numerous Big Games – there's no number to reach or goal to attain that separates the good athletes from the best. Even being inducted into the hall of fame doesn't necessarily mean you go down in history as the Greatest of All Time. Yet, somehow, sports fans seem to find a middle ground, an unwritten rule to measure athletic performance and crown a player as the GOAT.
With rookies becoming pros and pros turning to retirement, there is a constantly shifting set of players on courts and fields. Generation after generation, entire teams are replaced, and fan favorites are regenerated. But does the same go for those deemed as legends? Are GOAT athletes truly viewed as the greatest of all time, or are people more inclined to give the title to the best player of their time?
To find out who the GOAT of the GOATs is in the NBA, MLB, and NFL, we ran three surveys with over 500 people each, asking them to rank players to see who came out on top. Breaking it down by generation, we can see whether perceptions of legends change over time, or if there is one true GOAT that all ages can agree on. Keep reading to see if your legend made the cut.
Best in Basketball
In most cases, being "legendary" boils down to being remarkable, famous, and well-known. But in the NBA, a legend earns his title by making a mark on the league. Winning titles, collecting rings, being a household name, and even having a signature shoe line may separate the great from the good, but it isn't enough to be crowned as the GOAT. As a five-time NBA MVP, six-time NBA Finals champion with 10 scoring titles and retired with the NBA's highest-scoring average just to name a few, Michael Jordan has done it all. His accolades earned him a spot in the hall of fame, while his come-up, humility, and overall impact made him a household name and a player every fan named as the GOAT – regardless of age.
Michael Jordan was the only legend all generations agreed on: Baby boomers ranked Kobe Bryant as a close second, while Gen Xers and millennials thought Bill Russell and LeBron James were runners-up, respectively. But with 16 years under his belt and 13 years of being considered a legend, LeBron James also ranked third for Gen Xers and sixth for baby boomers. Considering Michael Jordan had the starring role in the classic movie "Space Jam," LeBron James starring in the sequel speaks volumes about his place in the line of NBA GOATs. Putting the two legends up against each other, though, who comes out on top? Baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials favored His Airness over King James by a large margin; even when it came to movie makeovers, millennials were the least likely to say James' "Space Jam" would be better than Jordan's original, according to our survey.
GOATs may be legends in their own right, but everyone knows the NBA is a package deal. Coaches and teams make a world of difference, and according to all three generations, Phil Jackson is the best coach of all time. Bringing the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships in just nine years likely influenced his high ranking, but the teams he coached were also seen as the best overall. Each generation agreed that the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls team was the greatest of all time, while millennials were the only generation to name an entirely different team as second-best. The 1990-1991 and 1991-1992 Chicago Bulls ranked second for baby boomers and Gen Xers, respectively, but the youngest generation named the 2016-2017 Golden State Warriors as second-best.
Football Fan Favorites
The NBA's GOAT of GOATs may be retired, but in the NFL, the player who brought in a record number of Big Game wins and ranked as the greatest of all time across all generations is still building his legacy in the league. Big Game LII marked the sixth win for quarterback Tom Brady, breaking his tie with Charles Haley and adding another accomplishment to the long list behind his title of "greatest quarterback in history." Despite holding the record for Big Game wins just before the latest game, Charles Haley didn't make the top five NFL players of all time. In fact, the generations didn't agree on a second-place player – while baby boomers ranked Jim Brown as the second-best, Gen Xers and millennials gave the spot to Joe Namath and Emmitt Smith, respectively.
And while baby boomers and millennials included Joe Montana in their top three, each generation was more likely to side with Brady when the two were put up against each other. Millennials were the most likely to do so, with 69% showing support for Brady, but baby boomers and Gen Xers were slightly more split on the decision – 42% of people in both generations sided with Joe Montana, while 58% chose Tom Brady.
A record number of Big Game wins may also be a factor in Bill Belichick's title of the greatest coach of all time. With eight Big Game titles to his name – two of which he earned as a defensive coordinator for the New York Giants – his players and fans seem to support that claim. Gen Xers and millennials may have ranked Belichick as the top coach, but baby boomers thought Vince Lombardi ranked higher.
Despite these slight differences in opinion, the generations agreed on the top team – baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials all named the 1985 Chicago Bears as the greatest individual NFL team of all time. But the multi-Super-Bowl-winning New England Patriots also dominated the charts. Baby boomers named the 2007 Patriots as the second-best, while Gen Xers included the 2018 and 2007 Patriots in their top five. Millennials were the only generation to fill three of their top five spots with the New England Patriots, naming the 2018, 2017, and 2007 teams as the best.
MVPs in the MLB
It has been over a century since Babe Ruth first stepped foot on a major league baseball field and 84 years since his last MLB appearance, but no matter how much time has passed, his legacy has remained. Across all generations, the Great Bambino took the top spot and was the only GOAT that all ages could agree on. Baby boomers ranked Mickey Mantle as the second-best, but Gen Xers and millennials thought the spot should be occupied by Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, respectively. Even put up against the current thought-to-be greatest of all time Mike Trout and his near record-breaking stats, Babe Ruth retained his top spot. A whopping 79% of baby boomers, 86% of Gen Xers, and 81% of millennials chose Babe Ruth over Mike Trout.
Fans may have overwhelmingly agreed on the best player, but they couldn't seem to agree when it came to the greatest managers of all time. While baby boomers named Casey Stengel as the top manager, Gen Xers and millennials ranked Joe Torre as the best. Tommy Lasorda also made the top three for baby boomers and Gen Xers, but millennials' opinions differed entirely, choosing Joe Maddon and Joe McCarthy as the second and third top managers of all time.
The top managers and top teams also seemed to be linked: Across all generations, the New York Yankees dominated the top charts. Baby boomers named the 1960-1961 Yankees as the best team, as did Gen Xers. Millennials also chose the New York Yankees as a top team, naming the 1998-1999 squad as the greatest of all time. Coincidentally, each of the teams that took the top title were teams managed by Casey Stengel or Joe Torre – the two general managers who also topped the charts.
League of Legends
No checklist can determine what being a legend means in the world of sports. Record-breaking championship wins, home runs, and Big Game rings attest to the talent of players, coaches, and managers, but alone, they don't earn them the title of Greatest of All Time. Together, accolades, legacies, and even players' backgrounds can establish a secure-enough title that resonates across generations. Michael Jordan earned his spot as the GOAT of the GOATs in the NBA, while Babe Ruth and Tom Brady did so in their respective sports. Being the best clearly isn't confined to the years a player is present on the court or field, and for rookies in the league, the competition is fierce. The Greatest of All Timers have been around for decades, and it seems they'll keep their title for generations to come.
To conduct this study, we ran three surveys with over 500 people each for basketball, football, and baseball. To qualify for each survey, they had to say that they at least "somewhat followed" the relevant sport.
The total number of respondents from each generation for each sport is as follows:
* NBA: 100
* NFL: 103
* MLB: 106
* NBA: 202
* NFL: 200
* MLB: 200
* NBA: 209
* NFL: 202
* MLB: 201
For each of the sports, we gathered about 100 responses from baby boomers. Because of this, there is a 10% margin of error with a confidence level of 95%. What this means is that there is a range of values above and below the actual results from the survey.
To determine the order of who each generation believed to be the greatest of all time in each sport, we weighted the rank that every individual respondent made. Players needed to have at least 20 votes to qualify.
Respondents were disqualified and excluded from the survey if they failed an attention-check question that was located about halfway through the survey.
The data shown here depends on respondents' perceptions of who they believe are the greatest athletes from the NBA, NFL, and MLB. There are several problems that stem from self-reported data, including but not limited to selective memory, exaggeration, and telescoping. We can't be certain how closely our results match up to reality.
Fair Use Statement
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