When Tom Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to victory in Super Bowl LV, he secured his position as one of the most successful football players of all time. Brady has seven Super Bowl rings and holds NFL records for most career wins, playoff wins, passing yards and passing touchdowns — and that’s just to name a few.
After the Buccaneers’ resounding 31–9 win against the Kansas City Chiefs, who were strong favorites before the game, social media was inundated with the dreaded “Greatest Of All Time” (G.O.A.T.) debate that erupts after any iconic athlete performs well. Not only is determining a G.O.A.T. a Sisyphean task, but it also consistently excludes women and athletes from less popular sports.
Following the Super Bowl, ESPN’s SportsCenter posted an image on social media depicting professional athletes who are considered to be the G.O.A.T. It included Brady, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Muhammed Ali, among others. Serena Williams was the only woman portrayed, and her image was tucked in the shadows at the back corner.
The G.O.A.T. debate overwhelmingly celebrates the athletes who have the most publicity behind them. Casual sports fans think that Tom Brady is the greatest athlete to ever live because they see him play football every weekend for months each year. They do not watch Simone Biles nail moves that no other gymnast can attempt. They do not watch Diana Taurasi become a top-five scorer in the WNBA at age 38. They don’t watch Sarah Sjostrom set six individual world records in women’s swimming.
Everyone has a different interpretation of what it means to be the “greatest.” It can be based on wins, on athletic ability, on particular skills, on records or on any combination of factors. It becomes even more challenging to compare athletes across eras within single sports. It can easily be argued that Brady is not even the greatest athlete to ever play football. Peyton Manning has more league MVP awards, Joe Montana was undefeated across four Super Bowls and Aaron Rodgers has stronger stats. There is too much nuance to isolate a true “greatest.”
It is also nearly impossible to equate success in one sport to another. Tom Brady has won more Super Bowls than any other quarterback in the history of the NFL, but he has won those titles on some of the most talented teams in the history of the NFL. Brady’s lack of speed and weak run game are major flaws, but throughout his career, he has had all-star running backs to fill the gaps. Michael Phelps has 13 individual gold medals won completely on his own ability, but Phelps also does not face the additional challenge of leading and organizing a team. There is no reasonable way to compare those different types of greatness.
Greatness can also be defined outside of competition. Tom Brady has failed to make any significant contributions to social justice causes that have always been an essential part of sports. Tommie Smith and John Carlos made enormous sacrifices when they chose to protest racism at the 1968 Olympic Games. Allyson Felix has been a trailblazer for the rights of pregnant professional athletes. Billie Jean King paved the way for women athletes to receive equal pay. The greatness of those athletes and so many like them transcends winning records or stat sheets — and shouldn’t that be what it is all about?
The G.O.A.T. discourse elevates the already elevated and undermines those who have always had to fight for recognition. Calling Brady the greatest athlete of all time is ignorant toward women athletes who have fought for their inclusion, the Black athletes who have used their platforms to inspire change and the Olympic athletes who get one chance every four years to be recognized in the mainstream. They have something that Brady will never have: the ability to overcome and thrive in a world that was not designed for them. That is the greatest accomplishment of all.