Debating the merits of athletes in professional sports has become a digital battlefield built on spicy memes, cherry-picked stats, withering clap-backs and very little nuance. In arguments devoid of winners, you have to wonder why so many young and middle-aged men are investing so much of their time and energy defending the legacy of billionaires.
WITH A 21-FOOT TURN-AROUND JUMPER late in the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder back in February, LeBron James achieved a couple of things. The jumper made him the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, putting him ahead of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was watching in the crowd. But James’s jump shot did something else. It instantly became an incendiary piece of digital content, detonating in a corner of the internet devoted to hoops fandom with the force of a naked Kardashian.
Abdul-Jabbar had held the scoring record since 1984. It was a statistical feat that once underlined his status as the NBA’s greatest of all time (GOAT) before he was surpassed in the eyes of the next generation by Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan. Now, by claiming this longstanding record, many fans wondered if James had finally overtaken Jordan. In the eyes of some, he already had.
For even more, though, he never will.
“I don’t think anyone will ever surpass Michael Jordan with what the myth about Jordan has become,” says Brandon Lee, 39, from Phoenix, who, together with his business partner, Ajani Bakari, 41, is founder of the podcast and Facebook fan page GOAT James Kingdom. “It’s like Babe Ruth. They’re going to keep those two as the top myths of all time.”
Lee and Bakari got together in the GOAT debate business last April, after regularly finding themselves on the same fan pages defending James in the face of what Bakari calls the “Michael Jordan Police”. “If you say anything good about LeBron, you’re going to get a slew of guys that are going to come and tell you you don’t know basketball,” says Bakari, an electronic technician by day, who’s chatting to me from his lounge room in south Florida. “And so, they try to bully you into believing that the greatest era is Jordan’s era and Jordan’s the greatest player.” Both regard themselves as Jordan trolls, with Bakari referring to himself as ‘The Exposer’.
In the eyes of Jordan fans, the two are “Bron-sexuals” and their unflinching advocacy of James has made them the target of threats. “We get messages from people who are ready to fight us,” says Lee, a former college player, who stands 6’5”. “They threaten to fly me to where they’re at to fight me. They be making death threats.”
Welcome to sports fandom in the digital age. Similar debates are rife in football and tennis but it’s the NBA discussion that’s the most bare- knuckled (well, as much as keyboard combatants can be). A hotbed of molten takes, devastating memes, cherry-picked stats and cascading comment threads, here grown men wage digital war across the generational divide in a largely binary (though Kobe has his own hive) struggle to win a debate that’s trivial, pointless, futile, often puerile and frequently toxic.
But boy, is it entertaining.
Before we go any further, I should probably declare my hand. After all, allegiance is more than a little relevant in a binary debate. I’m a Jordan guy for all the obvious reasons. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s when ‘His Airness’ was ascendant. Jordan’s feats, particularly the first run with Chicago, are nostalgic bullet points in my adolescence. Jordan was the GOAT, before the term had any cultural relevance. His winning shot over a flailing Bryon Russell to secure the second three-peat in ’98, closed the case for all time, or so I, and millions like me, thought.
Of course, we didn’t anticipate that a kid from Akron, who grew up idolising Jordan himself and later adopted the monikers ‘The Chosen One’ and ‘The King’, would inspire a whole new generation of fans, many of whom, never saw Jordan play. And that, perhaps, is the problem.
“The GOAT debate is so divisive because it’s multigenerational,” confirms Sean Callanan, founder of Melbourne digital sports marketing agency, Sportsgeekhq.com. “They [fans] feel very passionate about the person they’re backing, or they have that sense of nostalgia: my era was better.”
As you might suspect, the heat of the debate comes not simply from fans’ loyalty to the player, but what Jordan and James represent to the fan in terms of personal validation. “The reason people get engaged is because it’s largely about them,” says Jay Van Bavel, professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. “For people who were young when Jordan was dominant, it becomes an indelible imprint on who they are.”
Couple that personal stake with a more universal desire for definitive answers in an uncertain world and you have an argument that is as spirited as it is inexhaustible. “Debates over who’s the greatest, like debates about politics or raising children, divide in part because they can’t be answered and so it’s easy to just keep arguing about them,” says journalist Eric Simons, author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans.
The recent Ben Affleck and Matt Damon film, Air, rather nakedly targeted the nostalgia many Gen-Xers feel for our Jordan-poster-plastered childhoods. But as the active player, it’s James who’s the bigger content driver on social media. Each of his numerous feats, and occasional missteps, is a chance for content creators to flood the internet with memes within minutes of them occurring.
Of course, in the pre-digital age, Jordan never faced the same forensic analysis of his performance.
The traditional sports media industrial complex also plays a significant role in shaping the debate – The Athletic’s recent poll of current players was a boon for Jordan fans, with 58 per cent ranking him the GOAT compared to 33 per cent for James. Then there are the partisan talking heads – Skip Bayless, Shannon Sharpe, Nick Wright and Stephen A. Smith – who argue the cause for either player in diatribes that are then aggregated on social media by content creators, in the process feeding the hungry digital masses looking for their next stoush.
One of those content creators is Robert Pfeifer, 32, from Boise, Idaho, who is founder of the Michael Jordan Is The GOAT Facebook fan page. Pfeifer’s page boasts 32k followers and his mix of arch memes and inflammatory factoids has attracted millions of views. A former sports journalist, Pfeifer started his page back in April 2020 as a satirical and ironic response to what he perceives as many mainstream media pundits’ cosy embrace of James. “I was really annoyed that people were getting paid to espouse what, in my opinion, were very unintelligent ideas about LeBron James and Michael Jordan,” he says. “And so, I thought I would sarcastically mock the debate.”
Like Bakari and Lee, Pfeifer’s social media output has made him a target for abuse. “There’s been numerous times where LeBron fans have told me to kill myself,” he says. Pfeifer admits his content is designed to aggravate, but insists there are lines he won’t cross. “I’m not going to disrespect his mum. I will never make fun of LeBron’s kids. I simply make fun of LeBron and the people in the media who I feel almost worship him.”
‘Worship’ is perhaps an apt choice of words. In Pfeifer’s opinion, the GOAT debate is “as toxic as the political and religious discourse in this country”.
WHILE IT’S THE NBA GOAT debate that’s perhaps the most combustible among sports fans in the US and here in Australia, similar conflicts are common in football, tennis, Formula 1 and boxing. For diehard fans of those sports the debates are no less passionate.
“I think it’s just as fierce for the people that are in it,” says Callanan. “If you follow a whole bunch of tennis accounts there will be that debate but amongst the three, Federer, Djokovic or Nadal and their fans will fight just as hard,” he says. “On the football side, the same thing happens with Messi and Ronaldo.”
But it’s perhaps the generational dimension that distinguishes the NBA discussion from those in football and tennis. The fact that Jordan and James played in different eras elevates (or perhaps reduces) the argument to a plane that is both philosophical yet highly personal.
This is perhaps why stats in the GOAT debate are often wielded as blunt-force rhetorical weapons rather than precise empirical instruments. “It’s just agitating people with facts,” says Lee. “One day I could post that nobody in history has 11,000 points, 10,000 assists and 10,000 rebounds [except LeBron]. Then the next day I could do 12,000 points. It irritates their soul that I’m stating that this is a record.”
In the absence of a true or, at least, agreed upon baseline empirical argument – Jordan fans cite rings; James’s lean on aggregate totals – we’re left instead with a more emotive calculus. “They like to talk stuff like fear,” says Bakari of Jordan’s perceived impact on opponents. “No basketball player fears another basketball player. These are grown men.”
IF YOU’VE VENTURED even a little way into the murky, house of horrors funhouse that is digital sports fan accounts, there’s a good chance you’ve come across ‘Crying Jordan’. It’s a meme that’s taken on a life of its own. Unflattering pics of James are similarly weaponised. When words fail, a good meme can provide a knockout punch.
“Hands down, multimodal stuff with imagery and text is going to get more of a rise out of people than just text will,” says Dr Timothy Graham, a senior lecturer in digital media at Queensland University of Technology. “We’re visual, emotional beings. This is how we’re wired.”
Graham draws parallels between sports fans and the way partisan political supporters operate online. “It’s trying to activate primal in-group out-group territorial-style thinking to find those trigger points,” he says.
Of course, social media platforms only encourage the antagonistic and hysterical tenor of the debate, with incentive structures that prioritise inflammatory content, adds Graham. “They’re really sensitive to whenever people are starting to get triggered and they say, OK, this piece of content right here, we need to boost that.”
Which brings us to a crucial point. Aside from the nostalgia and obvious emotional stakes of the debate, there is another critical driver: bank. Pfeifer admits that while his desire to mock James fans is boundless, it’s all the better if he can get paid for it. “I did it for years then I discovered I could monetise my opinions on the debate,” he says. “Facebook pays you for engagement because you’re keeping users on their platform.”
The distinction between fans who comment on posts and those who create them is important. One thing that unites Bakari and Lee with Pfeifer is that they were all weary of the debate before deciding to become players in it rather than pawns. “I used to mute basketball groups,” says Bakari. “It was like, I got a life. If it wasn’t for us being able to monetise our content [through YouTube], I would say it’s a very hurtful debate. There are grown men I know spending hours arguing back and forth and there’s no resolution. You’re not going to change people’s minds. Both Jordan and LeBron are good for life. And here you are, some mid 30s, mid 40s guy, who’s neglecting time with your children because you’re on the internet arguing for 16 hours a day.” James’s teammates have lately taken to making goat bleating noises when he enters the locker room. You could argue it’s the aural IRL equivalent of what’s happening online.
But, of course, the goat isn’t the only animal that bleats.