“We are eager for your outrage!”
— Editors of GQ
No, GQ, you aren’t. I know you write that you are eager for my outrage but, as Ferris Bueller once said, you don’t want this much heat. I don’t want this much heat. I didn’t begin reading your list of 50 greatest living athletes with the expectation of building THIS MUCH outrage. I expected that, if there was any outrage at all, it would be the fun kind, the sports kind, the “Ha ha, how could you have put Tom Brady on this list and not Peyton Manning,” kind of outrage.
So, no, I did not expect to feel a “This list is an abomination upon the earth and all people involved in it should be banished,” kind of outrage. I can’t sleep, GQ. I am sending angry texts to friends I haven’t talked to in 25 years. I am walking around with a cartoon bubble of “?#@*%!” floating over my head.
Yes, I’m letting this list get to me. I’m taking it too seriously. Read ahead at your own peril.
This week, the Editors of GQ — including my friend Devin Gordon — put together a list of what they call the 50 Greatest Living Athletes. What is wrong with this list? Well, I have done a quick count and determined that there are 48,593,271,408,679 things wrong.
No, check that, forgot one. So it’s 48,593,271,408,680 things wrong.
I’m not going to go through all the things that are wrong because my doctor has advised me against it, but let’s start with the main point which is: Whaaaaaaaaaaaat?
No, actually, let’s start with this paragraph, this astonishing paragraph, this soul-crushing, heart-stomping, brain-bursting, dream-crushing paragraph:
“Heck, before we argued about names, we argued about definitions: what does ‘greatest athlete’ even mean? Titles and honors and stats, yes, but also a pure physical dynamism—the creativity to reinvent your sport. Larry Bird couldn’t jump. Dan Marino couldn’t move. Out of the three quarterbacks who have led the San Francisco 49ers franchise to the Super Bowl, Joe Montana is the third-best athlete. Derek Jeter won five World Series, but he was often not even the best athlete on his own team.”
Whew. This won’t be pretty. First, apparently, they argued about definition — what does greatest athlete mean? That is absolutely a good place to start because as Mike Schur — one of the many friends I have driven absolutely insane with my fury over this list — texts: “Why make that list?! It’s an impossible list with vague criteria!!!”
But, no, the editors make clear that it is, in fact, an impossible list with CLEAR criteria. They say that greatest athlete does not just mean titles, honors and stats but also pure physical dynamism and the creativity to reinvent your sport. This paragraph has led me to having long imaginary conversations with the editors of GQ.
Me: Hmm. Interesting idea. Your criteria make me think Larry Bird. Won titles. Won all the awards. Physical dynamism galore. No one was more creative. So Larry Bird is on the list?
GQ: No! Larry Bird couldn’t jump!
Me: Wait, Larry Bird couldn’t jump? Really? He seemed to get a lot of rebounds.
GQ: Nah. Couldn’t jump.
Me: So wait, um, this is about jumping?
GQ: No, it’s about titles, honors, stats, pure physical dynamism, creativity to reinvent your sport.
Me: Oh, OK, that’s what I thought. You mean like Dan Marino. Quickest release ever. Incredible arm. Changed the way he the game is played; made the game more dynamic. True, he didn’t win a title but he came close …
GQ: We don’t care that he didn’t win a title.
Me: Oh, good, so Dan Marino is on the list.
GQ: No! Dan Marino couldn’t move.
Me: Wait, um, what? I’m pretty sure I saw him move.
GQ: Nope. Couldn’t move.
Me: So moving is an important part of this? Moving and jumping? Is Edwin Moses on this list … he did a lot of moving and jumping.
Me: So, um, I’m confused. Moving and jumping and all the other stuff … I guess you mean Joe Montana, then. He did all those other things, AND he could move AND he could jump. So Joe Montana?
GQ: No! He’s the third-best athlete to take the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Come on!
Me: Oh, OK, um, wait, third-best athlete to take the 49ers to … who else took the 49ers … Steve Young? … Um, OK, I guess maybe you could make that argument, Young definitely … OH GOOD GOD YOU ARE NOT REALLY SAYING THAT JOE MONTANA IS NOT AS GOOD AN ATHLETE AS (let me breathe for a moment) COLIN KAEPERNICK??????????
GQ: Wait ‘til you get to the part about Derek Jeter.
I should just stop here. I should. I told you, this is working me up, and I already have blood pressure issues and, no, I’m taking it too seriously, they meant it is a fun little list, and they’re obviously just out of their minds. So fine, they mean this to be a list of “athletes” with lots of quotations around it, sort of like the “50 living athletes who would have done well at the NFL Combine.”
GQ: Ha ha, by the way, Tom Brady is on the list.
WHAT? TOM BRADY? TOM BRADY? CAN TOM BRADY JUMP? CAN TOM BRADY MOVE? IS TOM BRADY THE BEST ATHLETE ON THIS TEAM?
I hate this list so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so much.
* * *
Basketball players on the list:
1. LeBron James (only numbered player on the list)
Yes, there are 10 NBA players on this list. Ten out of 50. According to GQ, one out of every five of the greatest living athletes on earth plays or played in the NBA. It’s possible, just possible, that the editors of GQ might be insane.
But OK … so they love basketball. Love the game. Know it in and out. Have a deep love for the sport. So let’s see what women basketball players they chose, OK, Diana Taurasi is one, good, and the other …
They chose Cheryl Miller. Of course they did.
Let me say this up front: Cheryl Miller was a wonderful college basketball player in the early-to-mid 1980s. I want to be careful here and not diminish a wonderful player. But Cheryl Miller is — through no fault of her own — the player that guys who have not watched women’s basketball in 30 years still think is the greatest. We are now getting to the heart of why this list makes me truly angry, not just fun angry: It’s unbelievably lazy. You can imagine the editors coming up with it at a kegger without Internet access.
“Hey we need a couple of women basketball players too. Diana Taurasi, of course. And … how about Cheryl Miller?”
“Yeah! She’s Reggie Miller’s sister, right?”
“Right! And didn’t she score, like 105 points in a high school game once?”
I don’t use those two facts capriciously — those are the two facts the GQ editors trumpet in their Miller paragraph.
And, that’s cool. Here’s something else that’s cool, straight from Mechelle Voepel, another friend I’ve been driving up the wall with my outrage: Lisa Leslie once scored 101 points IN A HALF — the other team wouldn’t even come out in the second half. Lisa Leslie also won four Olympic golds, two WNBA titles and was named WNBA MVP three times.
Sheryl Swoopes? Candace Parker? Lauren Jackson? Teresa Edwards? Heck Cheryl Miller’s USC teammate Cynthia Cooper was the top scorer in Italy for 11 years, didn’t join the WNBA until she was 34 and was STILL good enough to win two WNBA MVP awards. There are at least a dozen others. Did they choose Cheryl Miller because, after weighing the brilliance of these more accomplished players (Miller was injured and did not play much after college), they determined that Miller is still a better athlete than any of them.
This is the point, the furious point, the enraging point. I doubt GQ even thought about it.
Oh, and by the way:
Allen Iverson is on this list; Larry Bird is not.
Allen Iverson is on this list; Oscar Robertson is not.
Allen Iverson is on this list; Jerry West is not.
Allen Iverson is on this list; Dirk Nowitzki is not.
* * *
Tennis players on the list:
There are a million things wrong here — how can you not have Steffi Graf on here? I’d like to hear the argument how Bjorn Borg was a greater athlete than Novak Djokovic (Was he faster? Stronger? Better shape?) — but we don’t have time for everything.
* * *
Football players on the list:
So J.J. Watt is here, Lawrence Taylor is not. This is ludicrous on its face, but there is at least a reason for it. GQ — rather sneakily, I should say — decided “to eliminate all the players who cheated or, worse, behaved intolerably off the field.”
Then they made an exception for Jim Brown because, you know, they just did. It’s that kind of list.
See, if GQ had just called this “A dumb list of athletes we happen to like,” I would have been fine with it.
* * *
Olympic athletes on the list:
Jackie Joyner Kersee
This part of the list, I admit, might have made me angrier than any other part, which is saying something. I have so many angry thoughts, but I’ll reduce them to three.
1. Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles Simone Biles.
I can only assume that someone literally just forgot to put her on the list. She’s mentioned in the introduction, so they are aware of her. I can only assume that they meant to put her on here and something happened, some computer bug or something. They have Nadia on this list, and I love Nadia, I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time with Nadia, she is a joy and pioneer and a magnificent Olympian. Nadia Comaneci herself would never claim to being the athlete that Simone Biles is. It’s not close. Then, I’m not sure anyone on earth is the athlete Simone Biles is. Maybe they’ll release the non-computer bug version of this list later … I hope Nadia Comaneci AND Simone Biles are on it.
2. No Katie Ledecky? Really?
There is not a woman swimmer on this list. You are doing a fifty greatest living athletes, and you put Michael Phelps on here, and you have the choice of Tracy Caulkins and Natalie Coughlin and Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres and KATIE FLIPPIN’ LEDECKY and you don’t have room for one of them?
3. I wonder what that Lindsey Vonn discussion was like?
So here’s what I’m thinking … the editors of GQ were sitting around a table, and they knew that they needed to put a skier on the list, and they were emptying all of their passionate thoughts about whether it should be Lindsey Vonn or Janica Kostelić. One side of the table is furiously arguing for Vonn’s 20 World Cup titles, a record. But the other side points out that Kostelić won four Olympic gold medals (Vonn won one) and five World Championships (Vonn won two) and is pretty widely regarded as the best female skier ever because she won World Cup races in all five disciplines. Back and forth it went, deep dives into their skiing styles, the depth of the competition they faced, the conditions … and finally Vonn’s remarkable recovery from injuries and World Cup record carried the day.
Or Lindsey Vonn is the only skier they’ve ever heard of. It’s probably one or the other.
* * *
Baseball players on the list:
Ken Griffey Jr.
There is not a baseball pitcher on this list. Most of the greatest pitchers in baseball history — Seaver, Koufax, Gibson, Maddux, Unit, Pedro, Clemens, Ryan, Kershaw — are living, but not one of them made the list. Because yeah.
Plus: Ken Griffey is just a weird choice. Great athlete? Of course. And I realize they didn’t choose Bonds because of the PED stuff. But even so, was Ken Griffey a greater athlete than, say, Eric Davis? Willie Wilson? Joe Morgan? Jose Altuve? Byron Buxton? Compared to everything else this is a minor point, but this list is so unimaginative, so unchallenging, so absurdly safe. It’s almost as if the GQ folks wanted to make one point (LeBron is the greatest athlete ever!) and then blandly filled in the rest.
* * *
Hockey players on the list:
Soccer players on the list:
Golfers on the list:
Kelly Slater (surfing)
Tony Hawk (skateboarding)
Sugar Ray Leonard (boxing)
I don’t know a single hockey person, a real hockey fan, who would put together a “greatest living athletes” list without Bobby Orr.
I don’t know a single soccer person, a real soccer person, who would put together a “greatest living athletes” list without Maradona
By putting Jack and Tiger on this list, they decided to redefine athlete away from the moving and jumping thing that seemed so important back when Larry Bird was involved. If they were TRULY choosing greatest athlete golfers, wouldn’t Dustin Johnson be on the list?
Then for variety they chose:
Kelly Slater and Tony Hawk and Sugar Ray Leonard.
Jimmie Johnson and Eric Heiden and Anderson Silva.
Sachin Tendulkar and Brian O’Driscoll and Katarina Witt.
Leigh Matthews and Greg Louganis and Teofilio Stevenson.
Mo Farrah and Ronda Rousey and Ma Long.
Ashton Eaton and Alain Prost and Laffit Pincay Jr.
Dan Gable and Pyrros Dimas and Rafer Johnson.
Or a million other combinations. In the end, any list like this is bound to be a failure because it says so little about the athletes and so much about the people who make the list (and, admittedly, so much about the people who rant for thousands of words about the list). And that’s where outrage comes from. There’s not one interesting choice on this list, and you had 50 chances, GQ. There’s not one choice that couldn’t have been thought up over a 43-minute lunch at Chipotle. There’s also no consistency through the process. You just chose people you like.
There’s also no Larry Bird, because apparently, he could not jump. And that’s what it’s all about.
So there’s my outrage. I really hated this list, GQ.