Word Play: How GOAT Became a Term for Sports Superstars

In the world of sports, the word “goat” does not refer to the horned domesticated farm animal.

You’ll see the word (in caps) thrown around in match commentaries, expert analyses, and fan comments. Short for “Greatest of All Time,” the phrase refers to an athlete that is considered to be accomplished and successful in the history of a particular sport.

Even for people who are unfamiliar with sports, the word GOAT elicits immediate images of athletes that have achieved celebrity status. For baseball, it’s Babe Ruth; in swimming, it’s Michael Phelps; and for golf, it’s Tiger Woods. Known to be the best in their field, these athletes attract autograph appearances, endorsements, speaking engagements, and other activities.

GOAT Etymology: From Failure to Sports Superstar

The word “goat” previously had negative connotations in sports. In the early 20th century, American sportswriters used the word to refer to an athlete who failed at the worst possible time in a game. A common example of a “goat” in that period is Fred Merkle of the New York Giants, whose controversial base-running mistake in a game against the Chicago Cubs in 1908 became a huge factor to his team’s loss.

It was in 1992 when “goat” became associated with the acronym “Greatest of All Time.” This was when Lonnie Ali, the wife of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, established Greatest of All Time, Inc. (GOAT, Inc.) to license her husband’s intellectual properties. The company was later renamed to Muhammad Ali Enterprises.

The term resurfaced when rapper LL Cool J released an album of the same name in 2000. In a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone, he said that Ali inspired him with the album name and the song “Mama Said Knock You Out.”

Although there are no exact origins of its usage in modern sports, Sports Illustrated attributed the re-use of GOAT to quarterback Tom Brady, who cradled a baby goat for a photoshoot for GQ Magazine. When Brady turned 40 in 2017, his teammates celebrated by bringing petting goats to their training camp. The word became so widely used that Merriam-Webster added it to its list of words.

How Does an Athlete Achieve GOAT Status?

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What does it take for an athlete to be considered the GOAT?

Athletes are usually considered the GOAT when they have a long and successful career. In tennis, although Roger Federer does not have the same level of performance today compared to when he won his first Grand Slam title in Wimbledon, his longevity in the sport and the awards he earned throughout his career place him in GOAT status.

GOATs have also pushed the boundaries of the sport. Sprinter Usain Bolt earned the label when he broke the record for the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 4 x 100-meter relays. Swimmer Katie Ledecky may not have a long career compared to her competitors, but she has already broken 14 world records since her international debut at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Lastly, an athlete is considered a GOAT when it’s universally accepted among fellow athletes, sports commentators, experts, and fans. This is a tricky area because an athlete that may be the GOAT for some may not necessarily be a great player for other members of the community. For example, Michael Jordan and LeBron James’ GOAT status remains a hot debate, with people weighing Jordan’s dominance over James’ all-around play.

The word GOAT in sports has evolved from referring to an athlete who failed at the worst time to the most successful athlete in history. The debate of who is the greatest of all time is unavoidable, but there’s no denying the fact that an athlete who has won major awards and broken records will be given that coveted label.

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