Before last week's Steelers-Giants NFL game, the analysts predictably debated, "Who's the better quarterback? Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger?" And equally predictably, the first method of comparison was, "How many championship rings do they have?"
The use of championships to measure an athlete's greatness doesn't make sense. We hear over and over that a player has plenty of talent, but can't be called great unless he's won a title. But by evaluating athletes based on their championship rings, many equally important aspects of athleticism are ignored. This is especially true of team sports, where these debates about relative greatness are the most subjective.
The greatest athlete in a team sport might never have a chance to play in a championship, because with every passing year, there's a greater degree of parity across team sports-the supply of quality athletes is expanding. Thanks to advances in training, kids are ready for professional leagues sooner, and careers are being stretched longer and longer as veterans can keep their bodies in top condition. This increased pool of talent means more competition across the board.
With this increased parity, the winner of a championship comes down to many factors that are outside the control of any individual: the referees, weather conditions, and coaching adjustments, to name a few. Granted, both teams are equally susceptible to these factors, but there's no denying that the best team doesn't necessarily win every single championship. Winning at the highest level, therefore, requires a healthy helping of good fortune, in addition to dedication and talent.
Furthermore, how can a team's success or lack of success be a reflection of one person? Comparing quarterbacks based on Super Bowl victories is far too simplistic a way to look at sports. A quarterback is only as great as his offensive line, receivers, running game, and coaching staff allow him to be. The same goes for any team sport. A championship is won or lost by the team as a whole, and the connection of team success to individual greatness is tenuous at best.
Sports aren't meant to be read about or written about-they're meant to be seen. Greatness, as a result, should be measured by how an athlete makes you feel when you watch him perform, not by what his stat sheet says. Statistics, even wins and losses, can also be misleading. And when an athlete only gets a few chances to play in a championship, those few games are far too small a sample size. Yet, an athlete's number of victories is often the be-all, end-all for determining his placement among the greatest of all time. An athlete's championship victories should be merely a piece of a much larger puzzle, not the absolute truth as is so often argued today.
Being an athlete is a results-driven job, but to lose sight of an athlete's artistry is to ignore what it is that captures the imagination in the first place. A child watching Michael Jordan, Ronaldo, or Barry Sanders play for the first time doesn't care about how many trophies they have. What matters, what resonates, is the amazing things that athletes can do, and the exhilaration of bearing witness to greatness.