Sydney Barnes, Wilt Chamberlain and The Madness of Cross Era Comparisons
Why comparing eras in Sport will always end the same way
Since the beginning of more or less everything, humans have been obsessed with comparing things.
Films are always stacked up against greats of their genre and music is often held to the standard of one’s classic favourite - not as good as the Stones or Marvin Gaye? Not interested.
Sport is no different but recently this has seen a reversal of fortunes for our modern stars’ plucky forebears. Players from past eras are often looked down upon because of the perceived quality of the aforementioned era and I am here to tell you this is nonsense, nonsense I say.
Cross-era comparisons do not work. There are a number of factors to this and hopefully, I shall present them before you in a format which is easily understandable and even more importantly, with which you will agree.
The Curious Case of Sydney Barnes
One only needs to take a glance at an athlete’s Instagram profile nowadays to see the frankly revolting level of training the modern athlete can enjoy, I hardly need to say such regimes were not afforded to those playing in days gone by.
I’m not sure I can picture Sydney Barnes knocking back protein shakes after a good hard leg session on the eve of a Lord’s Test, can you? Disputes aside as to whether such things had been invented yet (my money is on no) it does beg the question as to why then he ended up with 189 test wickets at an average of 16.
The argument frequently used here is that well, the quality of opposition at the time was not up to much and - um - it’s not wrong.
Here is the second point; the quality of opposition really does not matter when trying to compare the greats of a game.
The phrase “you can only beat what is put in front of you” is banded about incessantly to protect players who score their goals per se against weaker opposition or a team that gets to a cup final (or semi-final, looking at you England) against less stiff opposition than others. Why then, is this same luxury not afforded to players from bygone eras?
Wilt and Bill
Bizarrely sometimes the fact that some players were just better than those they faced actually seems to count against them.
Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell are two NBA players who played in the ’60s primarily when at their peaks (Chamberlain more early 70’s).
The perception is that the league was “white and short” (again, semi-true, I’d give that a 6 on the Pinocchiometer) at this point which somehow devalues their success. If you would believe it, they are accused by modern-day fans of actually being too athletic.
Both were national-level competitors in a number of track and field events and Wilt was acknowledged by Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of the strongest men he’d seen.
But hey, if they hadn’t simply had the cheek to be better than anyone else in that era, they wouldn’t be so good after all? Right?
Oh and also the Centres they played against weren’t short, in fact, a fair few were taller than Russell. Most were white though which does point to slightly broader societal issues rather too depressing to address in this article.
But who is the best ever?
The G.O.A.T conversation seems to be one of the most tiresome and well-trodden merry-go-rounds in sport, but god it's good fun to tell people they're wrong, isn't it?
As one Twitter user put it “Time ain’t gonna waste itself”.
The reason the G.O.A.T conversation is rather fruitless today Is - Well - no one really knows. It is unfair to say that the players now are simply better than those before because Cristiano Ronaldo would score roughly a hattrick per game if you took a time machine and plonked him down in the '50s.
Does this mean Pelé, Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas don't enter any conversation regarding history's best? Well, no it doesn't.
Every GOAT candidate must simply be judged on how they performed in the era in which they played, although I agree certain statistical marvels must be taken with a pinch of salt.
Sydney Barnes averaging 16 in test match cricket or Wilt Chamberlain averaging 50 points across a season must never be swept under the carpet and dismissed but must be taken into reasonable consideration if you dare compare them to modern players.
Another thing that must be taken with a hint of cynicism are accounts of greatness often used by players from yesteryear to devalue modern players.
If the phrase 'Back in my day' is used whilst describing a sporting feat of old then it's usually sensible to zone out.
I'm certain Larwood and Trueman were fantastic bowlers. Just look at their records and achievements. Where I tend to drop off a little is the fact that they seemed to sink 15 pints in the bar the night before, smoke a pack of cigarettes during the days play before retiring to the bar for another round if one were to listen to certain members of the former playing fraternity. Cough, Cough.
That last ramble may have seemed like I'm being a bit of a buzzkill, but I promise I do enjoy those stories but only when they're not used to devalue the efforts of modern-day players and say that they're soft.
Fairness has to work both ways, former NBA players are particularly annoying about this too.
Particularly the ones that played in the 90s. Yes, the game was more physical but let's not pretend it was MMA, yes Steph Curry would drop 40 on you, and no he isn't soft. Thank you.
Basically, the argument I’m trying to put across is, chill out, we can all be protective of our own sporting era.
In 40 years’ time, I will still be telling anyone who listens that no one will ever kick a football like Messi. Equally, however, I can no longer justify getting stressed out when my dad tells me Maradonna was better.
Also, do not fret if you still do this, it is fun to have the debate but I’ve found it is much more interesting if you don’t get driven close to tears whenever Cristiano’s name is brought up in any way other than “Messi is better”.