Michael Jordan sparked a debate when he was asked Thursday night who he believed was the best current player in the NBA — LeBron James or Kobe Bryant. Jordan cited number of championships when he chose Bryant, but everyone has their own way of measuring this very subjective question. Whether it’s statistics, wins, records or even personality, there is no single way to declare once and for all that this superstar athlete is better than that superstar athlete.
It is hard enough to crown the best NBA player of all time as even comparisons between Jordan and James will continue to be made until James retires — and then the arguments will carry forward after comparing legacies and differences in generations. What is even harder, and what ESPN is attempting to do, is declare who the greatest athlete of all time is by pairing unlikely names together in this unnecessary quest.
ESPN Sport Science has created a bracket and “by applying its unique metric to determine which players will advance,” they will eventually name the Greatest Athlete of All Time. The description of how they will decide who moves on to the next round is summed up by “unique” because there is no formula to see how Carl Lewis and Wayne Gretzky match up against one another.
Measuring athletes of the same sport and of the same generation is a difficult enough task, but by comparing athletes of different backgrounds, ESPN Sport Science shows how impossible it is to crown one clear icon. Michael Phelps and Anderson Silva are pitted against each other, but comparing an Olympic swimmer and a UFC champion is only as crazy as comparing a soccer star (Pele) to a professional skateboarder (Tony Hawk).
Each of the athletes included in the bracket — Jordan, Tiger Woods and Jackie Robinson just to name a few — are regarded as some of the best athletes of all time, but their careers have had nothing to do with each other. Their successes are independent of one another and to say Woods is better than Robinson is ungrounded. These legends will always be discussed and touted as some of the best, but given the company they are in, it is a compliment, not an insult, to be named among others.
The search to name the greatest athlete is futile; having an excess of legendary icons isn’t a problem that needs to be solved, but rather it is a reminder of why sports are so awesome. Unless ESPN is prepared to pit these athletes against each other in a Hunger Games type of setting, this campaign will ultimately prove nothing.