In sport, being a “goat” was once a bad thing.
Back in 2011, former NBA star Reggie Miller summed up taking the last shot in games as “you’re either going to be the hero or the goat”.
Whether an abbreviation of scapegoat, a rejection of Pagan idolatry or just some good old-fashioned cloven-hoofed animal slander, it still wasn’t overly desirable.
But between social media posts designed to poke the part of readers’ brains that hold all the exclamation marks, and opinion-shouting shows in the vein of ESPN’s (in)famous First Take, the all-caps GOAT conversation is never-ending and unavoidable.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are both the GOAT depending on which one scored the most recent worldie or fell short in a major competition. Serena Williams and Roger Federer are almost unanimously accepted as GOATs, but the former still hasn’t caught Margaret Court and the latter has just been joined by Rafael Nadal on a record 20 majors with Novak Djokovic only one back.
And then, of course, we have Nathan Lyon, the GOAT of Australian cricket, whose semi-ironic-cum-kind-of-legitimate nickname arrived after overtaking Australia’s relatively meagre ranks of finger-spinners just a few years into his career.
But long before the moniker became less of a joke, by virtue of him becoming comfortably the true GAOSOAT and actually climbing into the top three of Australia’s all-time Test wicket-takers, the capra-esque measuring stick had become an oversized part of the Australian sporting discourse.
The futility of the GOAT debate
Which brings us to grand final week, where Cameron Smith’s status as the “greatest of all time” has been labelled not just wrong, but somehow insulting to the sport.
In the same 24-hour period, his GOAT status was reaffirmed by former rep player Matthew Johns, who placed him above his own brother in that debate.
And while one journalist’s or one player’s claim getting aggregated across the internet a few times isn’t necessarily worth getting into a lather over, it does raise questions about how we talk about athletes while their careers are ongoing.
Considering how prevalent it is, it’s alarming how ridiculous judging athletes on an “all time” scale is.
DeLorean, hot tub or phone booth; pick your time machine. Does anyone really think team of the century players Clive Churchill or Brian Bevan would match it with James Tedesco or Josh Addo-Carr?
That’s not some slanderous hot take; merely a recognition of advances in science and the growth of the sport from something done by steelworkers between packs of Winfield Reds into a massively lucrative professional endeavour.
Sport stars can only ever be realistically judged against something resembling their contemporaries and for Smith, going any further back than the 1990s is an exercise in futility.
Presumably, that’s why Andrew Johns, another goatly presence from recent years, is always so careful to say Smith is the greatest player that he has seen.
It’s the only fair way to judge.
Even if they spend a lifetime rummaging through car-boot sales for old VHS tapes (and a VHS player), someone born in the 90s isn’t really going to know how great Wally Lewis was. A Gen X-er will struggle to encapsulate what made Graeme Langlands a superstar, other than flashy white boots. No-one is alive today who can testify as to Dally Messenger’s impact on the field. But we all agree they were great.
Once you reach a certain distance from their playing days, the majority of players’ legacies is hearsay, reading books (often written by people who also weren’t there) or sitting around in pubs listening to stories about the strength, savvy or speed of players from yesteryear.
So why do we put so much stock in these debates? Well, because they’re fun. But when that fun becomes part of some narrative that a legend of the game like Smith is actually just a bloke who’s hung around for a long time, it tarnishes the reputation of one the sport’s biggest names, who deserves to be celebrated.
Smith’s brilliance and ability to break the record for holding the most records isn’t solely down to his longevity.
Queensland and Australian selectors don’t just hand out representative caps for services rendered, and regardless of how many premierships you’ve won, touch judges don’t raise their flags unless the ball goes through the sticks.
Scoring all the points he’s scored, creating all the tries he’s had a hand in, making all the tackles he has, winning all the games he’s won … it’s all part of a tapestry.
Does winning all the premierships, State of Origin series and Test matches make him the greatest of all time? Does reaching four grand finals in five years? Does playing at an elite level for an unprecedented 18 years or breaking umpteen records?
Maybe, maybe not, but it doesn’t matter and we can never know anyway.
But once Smith’s career is done and his legacy is consigned to books and bar-room conversations, it will be hard to explain why the sport spent the last years of his career pillorying him for contract chicanery, having a grin that’s a bit too cheeky and failing to adhere to our timeline of when he should stop playing the game he still dominates.