Despite what your father thinks or what older sports fans at work grouse about — “Back in my day, players were tougher blah blah” — we’re in a golden era of sports. Across the gambit of all professional sports, we’re looking at some of the greatest athletes of all time. With the large number of outstanding athletes in each sport, it is possible to really name the best in each sport? You bet it is.
The biggest thing that obscures greatness is fandom. It’s the common fan that gets caught up in the “my team has the best player” talk, or even “the player with the best products” is the best. That’s not always the case. You can have a shoe named after you or play in the biggest television market, but that doesn’t mean you’re actually the greatest. Are you going to agree completely with this ranking? Certainly not! But see what you think. Here are the greatest active players in every major American sport.
No denying greatness
GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) is a term synonymous with Tom Brady. But Tom Brady isn’t the GOAT. (No offense, Tom.) Tom Brady isn’t even the best player in the NFL. As much as they’d hate to admit it, even the most ardent Patriots fan would have to admit that Aaron Rodgers is wicked awesome.
Pete Prisco of CBS Sports called Rodgers the best in the NFL for 2018. The stats agree; a broken collarbone derailed his 2017 season, but if not for that Rodgers was well on his way to another season of 35+ touchdowns. Rodgers is shifty, tough to tackle, deceptively quick, and a very timely runner. People love comparing quarterbacks — Aaron Rodgers is Fran Tarkenton’s scrambling, a literal photographic memory, and the best deep ball thrower ever. There’s a reason the Green Bay Packers made Aaron Rodgers the highest paid player in NFL history. If you’re not on the Rodgers train yet you should be.
Big fish to fry
Regardless of the sport, players that begin together are always intertwined. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird barely even need their last names attached. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper haven’t reached that status yet, but both debuted in 2012 and both won the rookie of the year award in their leagues. Sports Illustrated once called then-high school phenom Bryce Harper baseball’s Lebron, while Trout seemingly came out of nowhere to outshine Harper in just about every way.
When old timers talk about great athletes like Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, and Frank Robinson, they’re referring to a player like Mike Trout. He’s as much Ken Griffey Jr. as anyone — only better at this point than The Kid’s career. Yet despite all that if you’re not a hardcore baseball fan, Mike Trout’s name is virtually unknown. The Washington Post says his Q rating is a 22 — about one in five Americans know who he is. He had the same rating as Kenneth Faried (who?). You can sleep on Trout all you want, but the stats back it up. Not only is Mike Trout the best baseball player around he’s one of the all time greats — already.
Carving up the competition
Hockey is in a great place right now with dueling great players that lead to buzz-creating rivalries. Connor McDavid is a future super-duper-star, and clearly is the most important player in the NHL. But the current top skater is still Sidney Crosby. Now in his 30s, Crosby isn’t a spring chicken anymore, but his skill set and hardware put him at the top. Crosby owns three Hart Trophies (that’s the NHL’s MVP award) and three Stanley Cups.
It’s not just the pretty stuff in the trophy case that make Crosby that great. His career stats are just barely behind the all-time greats at the same age, but it’s his unbelievable puck handling that make him so great. He’s a magician with the vulcanized rubber disc. Both Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux agree Crosby belongs in the conversation as an all-time great.
Hang on. If you’re thinking “Lebron James” is misspelled, well, it’s not. More on James later. If you had to compare Kevin Durant to any player in NBA history, Magic Johnson is the best match. Magic played point guard despite his 6′ 9″ frame — the game never saw a player that tall with a skill set like that. Durant might be considered a small forward but he’s truly a shooting guard. He’s listed at 6′ 9″, but he’s actually just under 6′ 11″ — with shoes on he’s 7 feet tall. He has the silky shot of a Kobe Bryant but he’s half a foot taller. His 2018 Finals performance cemented him as one of the best ever, and even Lebron has said Durant is worthy of being called an all-time great.
You still think it’s Lebron? Let’s take a look at the deep stats between KD and King James. Catch-and-shoot and pull-up jumpers — a crucial part to the outside game — are clearly for Durant. Lebron makes his money in the paint, which is easy to do because he’s stronger than everyone so he just muscles his way to the basket. With mid-range jumpers, Durant has way more accuracy than James. Early in the year Durant got talk as the defensive player of the year — but as usual KD’s name was seemingly forgotten when charge came to block. KD never gets the love — he just does everything else.
Baby come back(hand)
Pro tennis probably isn’t enjoying the national exposure it once had. The name you know is Serena Williams. What’s sometimes forgotten is that Serena Williams is completely and utterly dominate when it comes to tennis. Her career numbers are jaw-dropping. At the time of this writing she has 23 Grand Slams, including winning a Grand Slam event in three straight decades. The only thing that could slow her down was a baby — her own that almost cost her life during childbirth.
But could even that traumatic childbirth stop Serena? Nope! After not playing most of 2018 she reached the Wimbledon final — falling to Angelique Kerber but sending a message to everyone to what she could could accomplish. The next Grand Slam was the U.S. Open. Serena fell short in her effort to join a very exclusive club of mothers to win Grand Slams, but this one will be remembered for its controversy more than anything. Even with the two finals losses in 2018, Serena remains the best female tennis player in the game.
The scoring machine
Major League Soccer enjoys rabid fans and in some regions is very much a party atmosphere, but make no mistake about it, there’s some legit talent in the league. Now, this isn’t the Premier League or anything like that, but it’s getting better. Part of that improvement is convincing the best players that it’s worth it to stick around in the U.S. Sebastian Giovinco is going to do just that.
The Italian national came to the MLS in 2015 and made his impact felt immediately. He scored 22 goals his rookie season and keeps putting them in the net. He’s also big on assists, getting 10-plus in all but one of his seasons. He was being called the best Major League Soccer player ever in only his second season, and importantly for the league, Giovinco says he’s staying in the MLS for good now.
Just like Mike
Hey, maybe you don’t follow WNBA. Maybe you remember the “We Got Next” campaign when the league started up and that’s about it. If so, you’re missing out on some talent, and Maya Moore is the greatest athlete in the league. She’s a four-time WNBA champ and former rookie of the year and MVP and has the work effort of Michael Jordan – fitting since Nike promoted her with a pose similar to an iconic one made by Jordan.
Moore might not be a runaway GOAT. There’s quite the camp that feels that Diana Taurasi is the best. It’s worth noting that the former University of Connecticut superstar Taurasi thinks the former UCONN player Moore is the best ever to play there. Most would say the best WNBAer is between Taurasi and Moore. While Taurasi is definitely the among the most accomplished in WNBA history, the edge, just like in college, still goes to Moore.
Fore scores & several wins to go
Golf is a funny sport. You can have an unbelievable year — like winning two majors as Brooks Koepka did — and still not really be the “best player” in the sport. It’s not fair to Koepka (who is a tremendous golfer), but that’s how golf is. Tiger Woods is still the most important player and always will be as long as people tune in to watch him play, but Tiger’s not the best going now. Golf is a young gun game, with names like Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, and Rickie Fowler among them. But the guy with the most skill is Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy is on a bit of a Majors slump — through the 2018 season he last won a major in 2014 — but no one can hang with him when it comes to skill. He has the best swing in golf, and even his contemporaries are impressed. Fellow superstar Jason Day praised McIlroy’s skill calling him “Tigeresque.” It doesn’t get much better than that. When McIlroy puts it together he’s magnificent. Like in Orlando at the 2018 Arnold Palmer Invitational when he won going away. Rory will get back on track, and when he does, the PGA better watch out.
Roger Federer? What is he, 40? No, he turned 37 in August 2018, but in professional tennis years, that’s like 60. He won his first Grand Slam (that’s a major in tennis) in 2003 at Wimbledon — before Facebook even existed. Federer has 20 career Grand Slam wins and an additional 10 more finals appearances where he didn’t seal the deal. Somehow, despite his “advanced age,” Federer keeps winning. In 2018, Federer reeled off 17 straight wins and won another Grand Slam, the Australian Open. The next time Federer wins a Grand Slam, he’ll break the record held by Ken Rosewall as the oldest Grand Slam winner. (Rosewall won the 1972 Australian Open at 37.)
There’s a lot of debate as to the all-time greatness of Roger Federer. He came into professional tennis at the end of the Andre Agassi era and seemingly only had Rafael Nadal as a rival — as opposed to the 1980s players with John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg, and Ivan Lendl — but what’s often forgotten is how good Nadal actually is. You can easily make the case that Federer is the best of all time, and Nadal is second, which makes what Federer is doing all the more incredible.
Walk in the Park
The LPGA has three superstar golfers: Shanshan Feng, Sung Hyun Park, and Lexi Thompson. Only an LPGA fan knows all three names. Feng hasn’t had a great year, and Thompson — who will potentially be a nationally known athlete — hasn’t won in 2018 as of this writing. That leaves us Sung Hyun Park. At the time of this writing she has three wins in 2018, and is once again the number one player in the world.
Truthfully, the LPGA is in a nice spot with some outstanding talent, but it lacks a “Tigeresque” dominant player to draw in viewers. Park is another of the disciplined South Korean golfers who takes the game very seriously. She might not be flashy — she sometimes pumps her fist with all the enthusiasm of making a perfect left turn — but sometimes you don’t have to be flashy. You just have to be great. That’s Sung Hyun Park.
You either know NASCAR, or you only know Jeff Gordon — there’s no real middle ground. NASCAR fans already know who’s having an unbelievable racing season. Kevin Harvick has been a very good driver for a long while, but everything has come together in 2018. He won three straight races earlier in the year, and then won three in a row later in the year. If you’re not too hip to the driving thing, it’s not all just a bunch of left turns — there’s some actual skill to it. Harvick is doing everything right, using strategy to make aggressive, well-timed passes, and getting out in front and not giving up the lead.
Harvick’s car is usually the fastest on the track, but as he’s said before, it’s not fun when you lose with the best tools. But that’s why Harvick’s season has been so special. He’s not exactly just using that speed to win. Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. are both great drivers and having pretty good years, but Harvick’s 2018 season is up there with the best in history.
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