Who Were the Top 15 Sports GOATs and Why Did They Win?

By Gary Smith Published on March 2, 2024

The Institute for Faith and Freedom sits down with Dr. Gary Scott Smith to discuss his new book, “The Greatest Sports Stars of All-Time: Fifteen Fantastic Athletes,” which is available by clicking here.

IFF: Your book, The Greatest Sports Stars of All-Time: Fifteen Fantastic Athletes, has just been published. Why did you write this book?

Smith: I have long been an avid sports fan and for many years taught a course in Sports and American History at Grove City College. Since retiring from the college, I have written four religious biographies and have fallen in love with this genre.


IFF: So why did you choose to write about athletes who are the GOAT?

Smith: The debate over which athletes are the GOAT in various sports is one of today’s fiercest and most fun. Since the first decade of the 21st century, the debate over who are the GOAT has intensified as hundreds of bloggers, websites, and radio and television sports talk shows have discussed this issue and numerous polls of sportswriters and fans have been conducted.


IFF: On what basis are the GOAT chosen?

Smith: Choosing the GOAT for various sports is very challenging. Comparing athletes from different eras is especially difficult because training regimes, equipment, and the level of competition have changed over time. Does being the GOAT depend on how many games or matches an individual or his or her teams win, on athletic ability, on skills, on records a player sets, or on some combination of these factors? Pundits and sports enthusiasts employ numerous criteria: statistics, numbers of championships won, reputations, amount of media coverage received, polling results, longevity, effect on a sport, impact on society, and intangible factors. Those who are rated the greatest performers in their sport have displayed phenomenal passion and work ethics, often led their teams to numerous titles, helped their teammates perform better, and played their best in critical games or matches. The greatest players also help alter the nature and increase the popularity of their sport.

Why Does It Matter?

IFF: Why are sports important today?

Smith: Sports are a major source of exercise and entertainment around the world. Billions of people play one or more sports and root for teams representing cities or countries in various sports. Winning championships or international competitions can aid the economies of cities and enhance the pride of both regions and nations. Sports have become increasingly popular around the world as opportunities to play them have expanded and various media have made professional sports accessible to larger audiences. Sports are a big business in North America and Europe. Franchises in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the Premier League, La Liga, and other sports leagues are worth billions of dollars.


IFF: What impact have sports had on nations?

Smith: Sports have played a major role in promoting national identity. As their teams have excelled in international contests, political leaders have created myths and traditions and used flags, songs, and ceremonies to enhance their nation’s reputations, unify their people, increase their own popularity, and deflect attention from domestic problems. International competitions, especially the modern Olympics, have enhanced national unity and pride. During the Cold War, medals won at the Olympics and other international venues served as a major propaganda tool. Both the free and communist blocs widely touted their victories in sports as demonstrating the ideological superiority of their political and economic systems.

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IFF: Some argue that sports create a level playing field that removes participants’ social and political advantages. Is this true?

Smith: Sports are typically portrayed as promoting egalitarian values, but they frequently perpetuate class, racial, and gender distinctions. I discuss how various economic, political, national, religious, and social factors affected the lives of 15 athletes I profile.


IFF: Which athletes did you choose as the GOAT of various sports?

Smith: For tennis, I chose Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic; for golf, Annika Sorenstam and Jack Nicklaus; for soccer, Mia Hamm and Pele; for basketball, Diana Taurasi and LeBron James; for baseball, Babe Ruth; for football, Tom Brady; for boxing, Muhammad Ali; for ice hockey, Wayne Gretzky; as the greatest Olympian, Michael Phelps; and as the greatest all-around athletes, Babe Didrickson Zaharias and Jim Thorpe.

No Fistfights About This, Please!

IFF: Which choices are the most controversial?

Smith: Probably Pele over Lionel Messi in men’s soccer, Nicklaus over Tiger Woods in men’s golf, and James over Michael Jordan in men’s basketball.


IFF: Why did you choose James instead of Jordan?

Smith: My choice of James is the only time in my book in which I reject the favorite of the pundits and fans. As great as Jordan was, I think that James’ accomplishments are superior. Jordan has won one more regular-season MVP award and two more NBA finals MVPs than James. James, however, is the leading scorer in NBA history and has outscored Jordan by more than 7,000 points. James also has 4,200 more rebounds and 5,000 more assists than Jordan (James ranks fourth all-time time in assists). James has made a slightly higher percentage of field goals than Jordan and a higher percentage of three-point shots. Jordan’s scoring average in the playoffs is 33.4, while James’s is 28.5, but James leads him in rebounds by 9.0 to 6.4 and assists by 7.2 to 5.7.

Moreover, James has scored 2,036 more points, and has more than twice as many rebounds and almost twice as many assists in post-season games than Jordan. James has a value over replacement (an estimate of the points per 100 team possessions that a player contributes above a replacement’s level) score of 146.6 compared with Jordan’s 116.1. Pundits, coaches, players, and fans are understandably impressed by Jordan’s perfect record in NBA finals compared with James’s 4–6 mark, but James has made it to ten finals compared with Jordan’s six and has had much less talented teammates for half of those finals than Jordan enjoyed. People will need to read my book to consider the rest of my argument.

IFF: This sounds like a fun and fascinating book. May the debate continue.


Originally appeared at The Institute for Faith & Freedom. Republished with permission.

Gary Scott Smith chairs the History Department at Grove City College and is the author of Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents (Oxford University Press, 2015), Heaven in the American Imagination (Oxford, 2011) and Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2006).

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