March 8, 2013

ESPN's Greatest Athlete of All Time: At Least They Got the End Result Right

By - Keith Smith

By now, many of you have heard about ESPN's pre-March Madness bracket pitting, in their opinion, the 16 greatest athletes in almost every major sport in an elimination contest to determine who wears the crown of The Greatest Athlete of All Time.

While the powers that be at the network produced the correct result in naming Vincent Edward "Bo" Jackson as the choice (I could write a whole article just on his magnificence), I'm not sure it was exactly a fair contest.

Photo by: George Rose
ESPN, for some reason (they are airing the results show March 10th at 3:30 Eastern Time, where I hope we learn more about that), decided to let their viewers select the 16 participants from every major sport. That was about as useful and effective a way to determine the Greatest Athlete finalists as laying out photos of 100 people and throwing darts up in the air to pick the contestants.

Call me cynical, but there were some on the final list of 16 that were about as athletic as JoJo the Dog-faced Boy from the circus.

ESPN took a fan vote for winners in the categories of football, basketball, baseball, hockey, tennis, golf, boxing, combat, soccer, track and field, Olympics, endurance, auto racing, action sports and then two special categories: game changers and multi-sport athletes. My first question to them would be, if you are really trying to determine the World's Greatest Athlete, why would you have categories in the first place? You can bet that there were some categories (like multi-sport athletes) with more than one who would finish in the top 16.

I mean, seriously, do you really think a race car driver or a golfer should be anywhere on this list? Much less a skateboarder like Tony Hawk? Are you kidding me?

Don't get me wrong, Tiger Woods is pretty athletic, as golfers go. And if Dale Sr. were still alive, I probably wouldn't write this for fear he would hunt me down and run me over with his car, or at least try to spin me into a wall somewhere. Granted, I'm not too worried about Tony Hawk. Worst case scenario, he does a reverse fakie with a frontside heelflip on my head.

Of course, I can't lay all the blame on ESPN for how this went down. After all, if you are going to leave the selection process to a fan vote, you almost have to categorize it to keep from having a logistical nightmare of counting write-in votes. This made the process much easier for them, I'm sure. But the winners of some of those categories as voted by the fans was much more of a name recognition (i.e., popularity contest) than of truly the best athlete in the category.

Take hockey, for example. While I love Wayne Gretzky (the winner in that category), and he is easily the best hockey player to ever lace up a pair of skates, is there anyone who has ever watched a hockey game that would consider him the greatest athlete in that sport? Being the best player doesn't necessarily make you the best athlete, people.

And for that matter, in the action sports category, I'm not so sure Hawk would have gotten my vote. Was he an innovator? Absolutely. He did things that have never been done before, and he changed the landscape of extreme sports forever, making the childhood pastime of skateboarding an international phenomenon. But have you seen how much better than everyone else in the world Shaun White is? He is an absolute freak on a snowboard, and when you measure him up against the rest of that sport, it's no contest.

Just as ESPN got the final outcome right with Jackson, the fans surprised me and got a few things right as well. I was shocked that Jim Brown won the football category. ESPN usually attracts a younger demographic, so when they went back to the 60s for Brown, I was pleasantly surprised. They were dead on with that pick. If you've never seen film of the guy, you've missed true greatness.

Likewise with Pele in the soccer category, and Jackie Robinson in the game changer group. Both of those were excellent choices.

There was one major thing that bothered me about the list, though. The field of 16 didn't contain a single female athlete. I know there were a few in the preliminary round, but there are some phenomenal female athletes out there. And while you can't match them against the males for strength and speed, if you measure them against their peers, I feel certain that there are one or two that should have made the cut.

Of course, knowing ESPN, they may hold The Greatest Female Athlete of All Time contest next year.


  1. Can't take anything ESPN does seriously. As a whole the network is a joke.

  2. I'm actually surprised they got the Bo Jackson part right.

  3. Why do all the leagues and networks feel the need to always get the fans involved? That's why people that deserve spots don't get them half the time. It's just a popularity contest.

  4. That was great. Best piece I've read in a while. I was dying at the part about Tony Hawk doing a heelflip on your head, and Earnhardt Sr. running you over. I would rather they did their brackets fairly. Top 16 hockey forwards. Top 16 defencemen. Top 16 NBA centres. Top 16 point guards. And so on. I would rather see athletes compared with those of their sport.

  5. Nice post Keith. Totally agree. There were a few head scratchers in the bunch, but they picked the right guy in the end.

  6. Thanks for all the kind words, guys. Much appreciated.

  7. Bo was awesome. No telling how great he would have been if not for the hip injury.