We rely on lore to form our earliest conceptions of history. Those conceptions root deeply into our self-identify, often growing unchecked for years before ever facing a real challenge from logic—and by that time, many of us are hardly interested in a perspective change. Even though these early conceptions manifest into powerfully held beliefs, the seeds are often planted innocuously. In 6th grade, I had a gym teacher who wore a cowboy hat and boots whether he was on the basketball court or pool deck. His name was Bob Eller. My dad called him Carl. He said it was a reference to the Purple People Eaters and their Hall-of-Fame defensive end, named Carl Eller, who terrorized NFL quarterbacks in the 1970s. It didn’t take long before Bob became Carl to me, too. That conversation—a two-minute conversation hardly filled with hard-hitting analysis—anchored into my psyche, growing unimpeded, year-after-year, until Eller’s greatness became a matter of fact to me. Just a few words from one encounter created a narrative that would orbit my brain for a lifetime. Of course, that encounter was with my dad, who, naturally, wielded the power of a thousand impressions. Over time, he would share similar praise of Pistol Pete, Yaz, and The Sheik—all of whom would become larger than life to me.
This embedding happens to all of us. Parents bonding with their children over sports is a ritual as American as Clark W. Griswold Jr. Much like Clark, it also comes with endearing flaws—approximately 25,000 incandescent bulbs worth to be exact. There is no more impressionable creature on Earth than a human child. We are drawn to anecdotal hyperbole because it allows us the limitless reach of our imagination. Since we have a vested interest in championing our childhood narratives as adults, this dynamic leads to some pretty strong opinions that never face the rigor of scrutiny. In the real world, blindly following narratives has been the root of pretty much every human conflict that has ever existed. Impassioned disagreements fueled by ignorance is how we get racism and war. The stakes aren’t as high when the subject is sports, but the resolve to defend an opinion is every bit as strong. We can shed these bad habits by looking for reasons to embrace new perspectives instead of looking for excuses to hold on to old ones. The key is to remove personal biases from the equation by allowing critical thinking to be our guide.
Dick Butkus was a brutal tackler who was named 1st team All-Pro six times during his Hall-of-Fame career. Some consider him the most prolific middle linebacker of all-time, even ahead of Ray Lewis. While both were undoubtedly great players, the difference between their resumes is roughly the difference between Teen Wolf and Teen Wolf Too. Lewis is a two-time Super Bowl winner who was the linchpin to perhaps the greatest defense of all-time. He is the only player in NFL history with two Defensive Player of the Year Awards and a Super Bowl MVP. He has the most All-Pro (9) and Pro Bowl (13) selections of any middle linebacker in NFL history. He holds the NFL career record for most solo and combined tackles and is the only player in NFL history with at least 40 interceptions and 30 sacks. He also played 109 more games than Butkus and did so in a league double the size, making it twice as difficult to be named All-Pro. The fact that Butkus still gets play as potentially the greatest of all-time (GOAT) at middle linebacker shows just how influential the power of suggestion can be. Whether it was from watching him firsthand or hearing stories recounting his legendary toughness, people who grew up idolizing Butkus don’t just think he is the GOAT, they need to think he’s the GOAT. Not doing so would be akin to a personal betrayal, and a betrayal to Butkus himself.
While exaggerating the greatness of historical athletes is a harmless exercise that leads to verbal insults at worst, and forges familial bonds at best, it has wreaked havoc on our ability to identify the greatest players of all-time. Take the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team featuring its selection of the 100 greatest players of all-time, for instance. With a little help from Pro-Football Reference and some sample-size witchcraft using surnames beginning with S, we can surmise that approximately 34% of all NFL players debuted before the NFL/AFL merger in 1970. Yet, the NFL included a whopping 49 players from this era on its 100th Anniversary Team. While the NFL has a clear interest in overpromoting its history to its fans, this is unquestionably a poor representation of player distribution. The NFL didn’t just choose nearly half of its selections from an era in which the vast majority of players didn’t play, it chose them from an era in which black players—even those who starred in college at major universities—were banned outright or subjected to minuscule quotas. The NFL also chose nearly half of its selections from an era that had anywhere from 1/2 to 1/3 of the teams it has today, making it 2-3 times easier to win a championship or an MVP, lead the league in statistical categories, and be selected an All-Pro. As if that doesn’t massively tilt the scale against the modern player enough, the NFL chose nearly half of its selections from an era when the AFL was siphoning talent from the NFL, decreasing the average level of competition that NFL players had to face. All of these factors should work in tandem to deflate the accomplishments of players before 1970. Instead, those accomplishments have been inflated, resulting in an extraordinarily inaccurate depiction of the NFL’s greatest players. If this statistical tomfoolery was limited to the NFL, then we could maybe let it slide with a quick side-eye—and if the source of these oversights was limited to the NFL, I wouldn’t be this deep into an essay titled The Recalibration. Unfortunately, this a pervasive practice in the sports industry not limited to an organization or a news outlet.
If we’re interested in a more accurate representation of the greatest players of all-time, we need to recalibrate how we approach inter-era player comparisons. We can do this by focusing on competitive inequities. Let’s stick with football and take a look at how a logic-based approach works in practice by comparing two players with very similar profiles—one debuting in 1961 before the merger and the other in 1975 after the merger. The Dallas Cowboys have had the luxury of suiting-up two of the greatest defensive tackles of all-time: Bob Lilly and Randy White. It should come as no surprise that Lilly is almost universally rated higher by fans and historians since he was Dallas’ first superstar player. It would be nearly impossible for any player to exceed the impression he made on the Cowboys faithful, let alone one playing the same position just a few years later. However, to reestablish order and consistency to our representations of the top-100 players, we need to remove immaterial factors like popularity from the equation. Once we do that, it doesn’t take long for a clear picture to come into focus.
White had a longer career, was better at getting to the QB, and won a Super Bowl MVP. Even Pro-Football-Reference’s Career Average Value stat—a measure that should favor Lilly since it doesn’t take into account competition level—results in a deadlock. Every statistical measure we have either favors Randy White or ends in a stalemate, and that’s taking everything at face value. When we adjust for relative competition level and league size, the gap only widens. Although it’s not Lilly’s fault that the AFL existed and the NFL limited access to black players, he benefited nonetheless. Both factors significantly reduced the offensive line talent tasked to block Lilly and the defensive tackle talent he had to beat for individual honors. White, on the other hand, competed against all the best football players in the sport. The league was also double the size, making it twice as difficult for White to be named All-Pro. Despite the conventional wisdom that has suggested otherwise for decades, there is no way we can reasonably move forward with the narrative that Lilly had the superior career.
Even though rating players is a subjective exercise, we have plenty of precedent in the sports world using degree-of-difficulty to inform our opinions. Diving and gymnastics are decided subjectively by judges, and those sports have had the wisdom to slap a degree-of-difficulty multiplier on athletic performance. Not doing so would result in a contest that would essentially come down to who could complete the most novice dive—or routine—the most flawlessly. That would hardly yield an accurate representation of the best in the world. Yet, that has historically been our approach to comparing great players to each other.
Every major North American sports league has undergone the same evolution from small and exclusive to large and global. Since list-makers have historically not accounted for this change, the chronicling of the 100 greatest players of all-time—in all sports—is badly in need of a recalibration. We can take this on in earnest by focusing on league size and player composition when comparing player legacies. This exercise might be uncomfortable at first, but the payoff will be a more accurate representation of performance while also having a better appreciation for the talents of modern players who, with little exception, are competing in the most competitive era in history. Happy scrolling!