One of the biggest comments I often hear from younger sports fans of some of the old-school greats is “Well, the game is different today than it was back then. It’s harder.”
I don’t buy that logic.
Sure, today’s athletes are in many ways bigger, stronger, and faster than they were as recently as the 1990’s and the 1980’s, and of course the gap gets bigger the further you go back in time.
That argument, however, fails to account for the fact that today’s sports are in many ways easier than they have ever been as well.
The argument that today’s sports are harder than they have ever been is used seemingly without fail to support the theory that today’s athletes are the greatest of all time. Most often, this argument is used by people in my generation, the Millennials.
Everyone wants to think they’re watching the best athletes ever and sure, that’s probably technically true in some ways.
Regardless of sport, many of the records in professional baseball, hockey, football, and basketball have all been either set or challenged recently by players or teams who played after the turn of the millennium.
Last year, the Golden State Warriors broke the record held by the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls for the most wins in an NBA regular season, and the 2007 New England Patriots challenged the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only team to win every game, including playoffs, in a season, falling one game short of perfection with a loss to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl that year.
But the argument that today’s players are better than ever simply because the game is “harder” is inherently fickle.
We are a society of “what have you done for me lately” thinking. We as a culture, like the minds of us as individuals, have a far greater appreciation for recent memories than for more distant ones. We feel the bitter windchill outside and think “today is the coldest it’s ever felt” even if two years ago the weather was actually colder.
Such thinking is inherently self-centered, however, and that’s where the argument for today’s greatness over yesterday’s runs into its greatest problem; it doesn’t account for the mental toughness of the players who already are considered the best ever.
Saying today’s game is more difficult than it used to be, whether it’s basketball, football, baseball, hockey or any other sport Americans compete in at the professional or intercollegiate levels might be factually true. Baseball pitchers may throw faster pitches than ever and they may have more pitch variations than ever existed. Football players may run faster or jump higher than they ever have. Rules in football or basketball may make the game less physical than each sport has ever been, meaning players of old might not have been able to get away with some of the physicality they played with in their times.
Yet however true these facts may be, and however harder today’s sports may be for all the reasons listed above, this particular argument inherently fails to take into account how today’s sports are easier than they’ve ever been as well.
Today’s technology is just one example. Technology is better than it has ever been. We can analyze and study film in ways players like Micheal Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain and Joe Montana and Dan Marino never could. Pads are more durable, lighter, and smaller than they have ever been because of technology only recently developed or mastered, allowing athletes to move more easily, efficiently, and safely than has ever been possible.
That isn’t all either.
Instead of practicing every day with pads, NFL teams are able to supplement on-field practice with tools like virtual reality headsets, like the Arizona Cardinals have.
Computers track information in ways coaches like Mike Ditka never had available to them as recently as the 80’s. Sure, today’s athletes are faster, but that’s at least partially because of science. They’re able to achieve such feats more easily because the understanding of human nutrition has never been better. A torn ulnar collateral ligament in the elbow used to be a death-blow to a baseball pitcher’s career. Then, in 1974, Tommy John surgery was developed. Now, players not only recover, but actually often have better careers because of the surgery and the recover affiliated with it.
Modern science continues to help athletes both lengthen and improve their careers.
That isn’t to say today’s greatest players couldn’t compete with the greats that came before them either, don’t get me wrong. I just think we as fans often overlook one key piece of information when we compare today’s athletes to yesterday’s:
A person’s success is a manifestation of the mind within.
Regardless of the field in which we exist, whether that be as professional athletes or as professional anythings, it is the mind that creates success, not the body. The body is a manifestation of the mind within, not the other way way around. The same is true with success.
Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player to ever play not because of his physical ability but because of his mental ability. He played on Father’s Day in an NBA Championship series despite his father’s death just three years earlier. He played the famous “Flu Game” in the 1997 NBA Finals, in which Jordan earned 38 points despite playing through what was either the flu or severe food-poisoning.
Mental toughness, and the desire needed to accomplish such things, transcends the rules of the game as they are now or as they were then.
Such feats show the mental toughness and the desire Jordan had. And Jordan isn’t unique among professional athletes who demonstrated such mental toughness.
There’s the late Gordie Howe, who played professional hockey until he was 51. There was Nolan Ryan who played 27 years and still holds the record for most career strikeouts as an MLB pitcher with 5,714. He’s a whole 839 better than Randy Johnson, No.2 on the list, and 2,988 better than C.C. Sabathia, who has the most of career strikeouts among active pitchers with 2,726, according to baseball-almanac.com.
Jordan, Ryan and Howe were all great athletes because they possessed incredible mental toughness, and that toughness manifested itself in their athletic endeavors.
Such toughness adapts, regardless of the challenges it faces, and prevents those who have it from ever being forgotten.
It also prevents me from ever believing these players wouldn’t have been just as good in today’s sports as they were when they played.