Championships: How Important Are They When Ranking an Athlete?

Mark HauserCorrespondent IIJune 7, 2009

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 07:  Peyton Manning #18 of the Indianapolis Colts shakes hands with Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots after the Colts defeated the Patriots, 40-21 at Gillette Stadium on November 7, 2005 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Travis Lindquist/Getty Images)

Obviously, the importance of the number of championships when ranking or rating an athlete’s greatness varies from sport to sport and depends on whether we are taking about individual or team sports.

And in individual sports, it is not as simple as it seems because many sports (tennis, golf, and auto racing) have major tournaments as well as lesser tournaments. 

In team sports, while there is generally only one championship per year, star athletes can influence how often their team wins more in some sports (basketball) than others (baseball).

In golf, there has been an ongoing debate as to whether Tiger Woods has surpassed Jack Nicklaus as the greatest golfer.  Some feel that Woods will never be the greatest golfer ever until he wins at least many majors as Nicklaus, which means he needs to win at least four more. 

Other people think that Tiger is so dominate that he surpassed Nicklaus three or four years ago.  Who is right?  I do not know, but I do not think it will matter if Tiger’s knees hold up because it is only a matter of time before he will win four or five majors. 

If Woods has major health problems and it does not happen, I will point out that Tiger has won 27 percent of the tournaments that he entered while Jack only won 14 percent.

In tennis, it is somewhat more complicated because the four majors are played on four different surfaces.  (I find this strange, but not as strange as baseball parks not all being the same size.)  A player’s all time ranking goes up if he or she wins numerous majors especially if they won one on each of the four surfaces. 

Just a few moments ago, Roger Federer just won his first French Open on—his first on clay—to tie Pete Sampras with 14 Major wins.  Does that now make Roger Federer the greatest player in history?  I’ll let you decide. 

Is the number of majors won more important than other accomplishments, such as:  how long the player was ranked number one throughout their career, how many other tournaments they won, and their overall match record?  Again, I do not know, but major championships won seem to be the first thing that comes up in all time tennis discussions.

In auto racing, victories in races such as the Daytona 500 and the Indy 500, affect a drivers all time ranking significantly. 

In horse racing, a horse’s all-time stature is almost exclusive judged by how they did in the three Triple Crown Races. (Given that I doubt that horses are capable of fully understanding the importance of these races, perhaps this is somewhat silly.  But, who cares—it is only horse racing.) 

In other sports, such as track and field and swimming, the athletes are mostly judged by how many world championships and Olympic medals that they won.

Boxing is such a mess that the World Title Belts (and bouts) won has become practically meaningless.  They have almost 68 different “World Champions” at any specific time while they should have only around 10 actual World Champions. 

In the past, the measuring sticks for greatness was how long were they World Champions, how many successful title defense they had, and of course, the quality of their competition.

Now, who knows what we should be looking at for all time greatness in this somewhat sad sport?

In team sports, the general consensus seems to be that only basketball players and quarterbacks in football can have enough of an impact on their team winning championships to be fairly judged for all time ranking purposes. 

A hot goalie in the playoffs can make a big difference, but that discussions among sports fans does not come up nearly as often nor does their influence on their team’s chances of winning seem to be as great as the two above. 

Either way, regardless of the sport, how much importance should we put on championships for a player’s all time ranking or rating?

Again, I do not know (by now you are probably convinced that I do not know what I talking about since I apparently don’t have any answers), but I do know it is far from simple given how many other factors (for example, and most importantly, his teammate’s talent level throughout their career) influence whether a player or team wins a championship. 

And how much importance that you put on championships can greatly influence on how you rank or rate an athlete for all time purposes.

How much credit do we give Bill Russell for winning 11 Championships in 13 years, Bart Starr for five NFL titles in seven years?  Or, how much do we penalize for Dan Marino for not winning a Super Bowl?  How about Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, and John Stockton for never winning an NBA title? 

Is Tom Brady with his three Super Bowl Rings the best quarterback in football over Peyton Manning with his one ring?  How does Kobe Bryant winning his fourth ring (if it happens in the next week or two)—his first without Shaquille O’Neal—affect his all time ranking?  Again, I do not know, but I am sure that you do.

One last question to this article with no answers:  Does Kobe and LeBron James have to win as many NBA Titles (six) to be considered as great or greater player than Michael Jordan.  Well given how great that Jordan was in so many ways, I finally have an answer for you—DEFINITELY YES!