There's nothing like a Sunday featuring epic wins by Roger Federer and Tiger Woods to get people talking about the best of all time. It's a debate at the heart of sports fandom, because the impossibility of ever knowing the answer to the question means you can consider it from endless angles and come up with different conclusions almost every time.
The Sporting News takes it a little further than Federer and Woods, though. They proclaim this is the era of the Greatest Players Ever, and throw LeBron James, Albert Pujols, Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow into the mix.
"All may be at various stages of their careers, but all are — or project as — the greatest ever in their sports. When we look back, this era will be defined by the "best-ever" greatness of those players."
You could look at those names and come up with reasons why most of them don't belong on any sensible person's list of Greatest Players Ever, not the least of which is the constantly shifting yardstick you use to measure their worth. If Tebow is the greatest college football player ever by virtue of winning two national championships, how can James be considered in the running for greatest anything before he's won a darn thing?
One word comes to mind and it is perspective. Federer, Woods, James, Pujols and Manning are all great players, but they follow in a long line of great players and will be followed by a long line of great players. You can take snapshots at almost any moment in time and find players worthy of entry in such a discussion.
Try the early 1960s, for example. Jim Brown, Wilt Chamberlain, Rod Laver, Willie Mays and Jack Nicklaus were all at or near their primes. You also had Sandy Koufax stringing together some of the greatest pitching seasons in history, Muhammed Ali's initial rise to championship, Gordie Howe and Margaret Court. In short, you had plenty of players who could have then been seen as the greatest players in the history of their sport or who could easily project to be the greatest.
The argument isn't that 1963 was a more perfect collection of athletic talent than 2009, it is that greatness is always present in sports. We like to think that we live in these unique moments of greatness because it makes us feel better about ourselves, but taking a step back makes it clear that you do it at the peril of ignoring everything else that came before.