Sports arguments are so pervasive today for many reasons, but I can’t say I am fond of them–well at least many of them. Of course, some pretty good sports writers might remind me that arguments or controversies are ways to “sell papers.” I suppose that’s true enough. But I am a big fan of logic and one of my pet peeves is arguments that compare people or things out of context–out of their historical frame of reference.

People love to write or talk about things and make judgement, but I really hate it when they do it to advance some cause of their own and often do it when there is no one present to defend themselves.

I was reminded of this today when I was reading a few pages from my copy of Grantland Rice’s The Tumult and the Shouting. Rice was one of the best sportswriters in the first half of the 20th century.  He was a very creative man and he loved to write many poetic articles on sports where he would often include a related poem. Some people would find his poems overly dramatic or even corny, but I love them. Rice often wrote about the most celebrated sportsmen and women of his day. I can only hope the Grantland Rice is still on the list of writers required for today’s student journalists.

In Rice’s book, he quotes the great old Major League Baseball Manager Connie Mack (Cornelius McGillicuddy):

“Grantland, you can’t judge or measure the baseball players of one era by comparing them to another.”

A simple thought, but so true.  You can argue about whether Willie Mays was as good as Babe Ruth or better, but not sure it can be a valid argument. Broadening the idea to other sports, one might argue that Joe Montana was better than Aaron Rodgers, but how can such an idea be proven?  How about Tiger Woods with Jack Nicklaus?   I remember Jim Brown sometimes being asked if so and so was a better running back than him. In my opinion it did not look like Brown liked questions like that at the time and looking back at, I am not sure I can blame him.

The logic of this thought by Connie Mack really has legs for me.  Why do we want to continually compare one person with another when the comparison cannot really be done logically?

Some writers like to say that athletes today are the best ever. That may be true, but I am not sure you can compare one athletes from the past with a current athlete.  You can compare stats, but can you really say one from today would be better than someone from the past. Of course, there are some records that are just so far superior.

I found  the sports documentary on Netflix hosted by Michael Johnson called Chasing Perfection interesting.  If you watched it, there might be certain things that stand out for you. There are a number of sports training people talking about many issues on the show, but one thing that Johnson mentions in particular is Jesse Owens Olympic Gold in 1936. Owens was the greatest track athlete of his time.

Owens won 4 gold medals, but today, people compare his performance with Usain Bolt’s Olympic performance in the 100 and 200 m races.

Owens won gold in Berlin in the 100 m dash at 10.3 s, and the 200 m sprint at 20.7. 

Owens was 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds.

Bolt is considered the greatest track athlete of his time and many consider him the best of all time.

Bolt was in three Olympic games so far and won gold in each game for the 100 and 200 m races. When you look at Usain Bolt’s time in the Olympics, his best time for the 100 and 200 m races were in the 2012 London Olympics.

Bolt won gold in the 100 m dash at 9.63 s, and the 200 m sprint in 19.32s.

Bolt is 6-foot-5 and 207 pounds.

The difference in performance in these short races is so significant its hard not to suggest that Bolt is the greatest. But it might be interesting to discuss a few things here.

In the documentary, they suggest that culturally, athletes compete in sports that their native lands support. As a Jamaican, Bolt’s athleticism would have been directed to track where Jamaica excels. If Bolt was in the United States, based on his size, he might have been encouraged to play basketball or football.

But training, conditioning, diet, and environment have such an impact on an athlete. When you read about Owens life, he had many difficult experiences that might have affected his performance in 1936 and beyond. And yet he was the greatest track athlete of his day. The time in which he lived and  the experiences of Owens and his athletic career were so different than Bolt’s.  Owens was competing in Nazi Germany right before the war. If you could put these two athletes, Owens and Bolt,  on the track at the same time today, under the same conditions and experiences, the race times might have been much different–Bolt may still be faster, but comparing Owns times in 1936 to Bolt’s times in 2012 under the same stopwatch today is just not accurate.

When I was a kid one of my friends had a baseball bat that came from the Ruth era. It was like a caveman’s club–incredible heavy and so thick I could hardly get my hands around it. I knew another kid who had an old three-finger mitt–a mitt with huge places for the fingers and a small pocket–and the leather was so thin it offered no protection.  I remember my friends who played ball looking over these relics thinking that no one could ever play baseball with equipment like this. But the truth was, people did and at one time these things were the state of the art.

I had a pair of football shoes that had long metal spikes that I had from an older relative who played before my time. When I wore those out to the park, and we were going to play football, several of the guys told me they would not play with me if I wore them!

I used to have some old golf clubs with wooden shafts–called mashies and niblicks. Some of my golfing friends looked at these and laughed.  They were using clubs made with titanium shafts at the time.

Recently I saw a mention of the shoes that Jim Thorpe used in the Olympics.  They were two different shoes. Can you really compare Thorpe’s performance with a modern Olympian who not only has space age equipment, but whose mechanics are examined with 21st century diagnostic equipment and his diet is dictated by nutrition that has been advanced over the last 75 years?

Modern man always likes to buy into the idea that athletes are getting better and better, but I think that again depends upon the conditions that past athletes lived with each day. My question would be more like, what if you took Jim Thorpe, fed him and trained him under modern conditions, do you think he would compete with today’s  athletes?

Todays best athletes are often discovered early in life. Those with promise might find themselves given certain opportunities that their parents or grandparents may never have had.  Much of the advanced training focusing on small improvements that can be obtained by willing athletes. At many training programs the focus now with younger kids is just making them the best athletes they can make them. Advanced skills for specific sports are put on hold.

Things change and each era is different.

Image: Jesse Owens