The “GOAT” conversation has been everywhere. Even the World Cup hasn’t been immune.

From the moment Lionel Messi stepped foot on the pitch for Argentina’s first match, the conversations were stoked all over again about whether Messi is the greatest soccer player the world has ever seen. This came after an NBA postseason in which the case for LeBron James to hold the same title in basketball was argued and then argued all over again after every Cavaliers victory. And four straight years of NFL seasons in which Tom Brady has seemingly gained and lost that throne depending on how he and the New England Patriots have done.

That conversation is even extending to baseball — Mike Trout’s first 1,000 games better than anyone else’s, they say — and why not? It’s fun to think that today’s athletes are not just great, but greatest. That we’re watching history. That we’re seeing something special, and that as good as the sport was back then, it’s being played by even better athletes now.

These arguments are fun. They’re also, often, backwards and flawed.

Determining the greatest ever in a sport can’t be proven. It can’t be scientifically or mathematically deduced. It can’t be spun through a formula, summed up in numbers and then presented with an irrefutable conclusion. This is because sports are subjective, and how well someone plays that sport depends on the fan watching it. A fan valuing certain traits in a player might pick Player A. A fan valuing others might pick Player B. The first fan isn’t wrong. Neither is the second.

Listen to ESPN or FS1 or sports radio, however, and you’ll see and hear attempts to make these conversations an objective exercise. This NBA postseason provided a particularly prominent example. It was argued that LeBron could never catch Jordan because he had too many losses in the NBA Finals, while Jordan never lost. And because he had had more poor showings in the playoffs than Jordan did. And because he has one scoring title to Jordan’s 10. Meanwhile, it was argued right back that LeBron had already passed Jordan because of the coaches both played with. And the supporting casts both had. And the different teams LeBron had won with.

In my mind, Jordan’s the better player, but it has nothing to do with either of those arguments. I saw Jordan play, I saw LeBron play, and I was more impressed with the intangibles Jordan brought to the court. I don’t care about Jordan’s point-per-game average or his All-Defensive First Team selections. I care that I saw a player who played with a fiery demeanor, who was at his best in seemingly every tight moment, and who made whatever play needed to be made to win the game for his team.

There has also been a push to make Brady vs. Joe Montana a numbers debate. The argument is that Brady’s five Super Bowl titles, a record, push him past Montana and make official his status as the greatest quarterback to ever play. There’s also the stance that Montana’s zero Super Bowl losses keep him ahead of Brady and his three defeats. Or the one that Brady’s record for Super Bowl passing yards is the dealbreaker. Or that Montana’s zero interceptions is a trump card. Back and forth the pundits go, their faces turning red and their spittle flying across the table as they pound the desk and insist upon their points.

For this argument, however, I don’t have an opinion. I can’t. Brady is the best quarterback I’ve ever seen, but I never saw Montana play. I also didn’t see John Elway and Dan Marino in their primes. Or Johnny Unitas, Fran Tarkenton, Terry Bradshaw or any other quarterback that has been thrown into the mix. I can’t argue Brady’s case against quarterbacks I didn’t have a chance to see. I could point out that Brady has thrown for more yards and touchdowns than, say, Roger Staubach. But I couldn’t argue with any conviction that Staubach didn’t read blitzes, find open receivers, show more clutch accuracy or show better poise under pressure than Brady does. Trying to do so — Staubach only won twice! Brady won five! Case closed! — is an argument without context and without credibility.

That’s not to say statistics don’t have a purpose in sports debate. Statistics thin the herd (good luck arguing Chad Pennington over Brady, for instance), and they’re an excellent tool in these debates. My favorite stat regarding Jordan is that, after finally winning a championship with the Bulls, he never again played a full season in Chicago in which his team didn’t win the NBA Finals and he wasn’t named Finals MVP. My stance that Jordan is better than LeBron is based on the subjective belief that he was better in the biggest games, but that stat objectively backs it up.

Too often, however, sports pundits don’t use statistics to back up their points; rather, the statistics are their points. They sum up a player’s value in one number or one line, taking away the whole notion of how the athlete played the game, and all the intricacies that go with playing a game at the highest level. It’s a cold and impersonal way to look at sports — and, ultimately, a narrow-minded one.

Without question, Lionel Messi is one of the greatest soccer players to ever do it. Let’s not have the conversation regarding his place in history begin and end with whether or not he wins a World Cup, or how many goals he scores in the tournament, or how many international wins he gathers.

Let’s soak in how he plays the game. That goes for LeBron, Brady, Tiger Woods and anyone else. It’s been fun so far, why stop now?

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM