The greatest debates in sports history live on forever because there is never a right answer either way. Sports networks thrive on these never ending debates as the topics that generate their content and they can recycle the storylines every year. For sports fans there is nothing better than arguing with some your friends about these topics, as everyone is an expert and everyone's side has a case to be made. One of the most fun, or frustrating depending on how you look at it, aspects of these debates is that they are often generational, comparing our parent's favorite team or player to our own generations. We would never really be able to compare them because they are from different eras, but it's fun nonetheless. Most of these debates resurface when a team has a huge winning streak, or a player sets a new record and we are urged to re-examine what we thought was the right answer.
Debates can range from comparing players, to discussing rules, should a coach be fired, etc... Some people argue about sports more than anything else, which could be seen as crazy considering all the bigger problems in the world. Still, for many of us, sports can be an escape and it consumes us. No matter how much we love it, we always try to find a way to make it better.
The debates in this list may never be settled, but they will always be talked about.
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20 Who is the biggest draft bust ever?
As we are in NFL draft season and will soon be in the NBA and NHL draft period, it's inevitable that we will reassess who was the biggest draft bust ever. Each sport has their major contenders. For the NFL, there's the likes of first overall pick Jamarcus Russell who could throw 70 yards but never learned to accurately throw a 4-yard slant as he lasted only three seasons in the league.
Draft busts tend to be more common in the NFL where there seven rounds of picks and its difficult to assess some positions based on college production, including quarterback. In the NBA it's usually easier to gauge the best prospects but there's still cases such as the Pistons picking Darko ahead of future hall-of-famers Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony. Most egregiously there are the Blazers bad decisions of picking Sam Bowie ahead of MJ and Oden ahead of Durant.
In the NHL the Islanders traded away future star Roberto Luongo to take Rick DiPietro first overall, who has struggled throughout his career and and is not in the NHL.
The MLB draft process is far more confusing but passing on generational talent like Clayton Kershaw to take Greg Reynolds must have the Rockies kicking themselves. Some of these picks were defensible in the moment, others just left us scratching our heads.
19 Should Women be Allowed to Compete Against Men?
There are a number of reasons that men and women compete in their own divisions and this debate is revived whenever a female athlete excels to a point that we begin to wonder if she could hold her own against men. When Brittney Griner was coming out of Baylor, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban discussed the idea of inviting her to their summer league team, not unlike Nancy Lieberman who suited up for the Lakers summer league squad in 1981. The likelihood is higher in individual sports like tennis and golf where there have already been some cross-overs. The assumption is that women can't overcome the athletic advantage of their male counterparts, but there are plenty of male athletes thriving on skill over athleticism and there's no reason to think a female athlete couldn't do the same.
18 Advanced Stats vs. Traditional Scouting
Perhaps the most topical but silly ongoing debate in sports is the one of advanced metrics and stats against traditional scouting and the "eye test". Charles Barkley's recent rant against Rockets GM Daryl Morey sums up most of the argument against advanced metrics, that no matter what, talent wins. In the NBA and all other sports those opposing advanced metrics are missing the point. The debate shouldn't exist, this isn't an either-or decision point.
Teams like the Spurs and Heat have developed large analytic departments that helped structure their offensive and defensive systems. They needed their talent to get them to the top, but advanced metrics helped them put their talent in the best possible situations to win. For all of the critics of Billy Beane and his 'moneyball' approach, the Oakland A's continue to be successful despite their minuscule payroll. Every sport has seen the influence of advanced metrics and the smart teams will continue to use it to their advantage.
17 Should we Measure Greatness by Championships?
When Steve Nash retired recently the discussions were about how great his career would have been if he had won a ring. Every sport has their greats that never got over the hump- Nash, Charles Barkely, Dan Marino, Ken Griffey Jr. The debate often asks would you rather have the career of Steve Nash, a two-time MVP or someone like Robert Horry who has six championships. The debate exists because it's so difficult to separate players from one another, especially the best players and championship success may be a valid measure when comparing stars like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady because the rest of their careers were so equally great.
Luck has more to do with winning a championship than we like to think and if you started your career today and could choose to be a two-time MVP, generational-defining player like Nash, or a solid role player on good teams like Horry, it should be no contest.
16 Why Isn't Soccer Bigger in the U.S?
Every four years during the World Cup the U.S. becomes a soccer loving nation, packing streets and bars to cheer on their country, but the excitement dissipates quickly. The popularity of soccer in the United States is dependent on the continued growth of the MLS and the success of the national team. The national team has success largely through their goalkeeping and conditioning, while they lack the skill to become a real top level contender. The U.S. has increasingly invested in their youth training and coaching and time will tell if the investment worked.
As the sport grows the country's best athletes will start to pick soccer as their sport of choice over football or basketball, and the U.S. will continue to rise up the world ranks. The success of the domestic league, the MLS, will help sustain the game's popularity during those breaks between world competition.
15 Could the Best College Team Beat a Pro Team?
The Kentucky or Alabama debate, as every year when their college basketball or football teams dominate their seasons pundits come out and argue that they could beat the worst team in the NFL or NBA. Like many of this list, it's a silly debate. Alabama's starting quarterback during their last NCAA championship, Greg McElroy is out of the league after a couple of seasons as a third string QB and first round talent from Kentucky like Daniel Orton or Doron Lamb are no longer in the NBA so it shows that college success does not mean pro success.
The Kentucky Wildcats may have four NBA players get picked in the first round of the upcoming NBA draft, but the 76ers have 14 current NBA players and even have wins against solid playoff teams, including the Cavs. It's an easy way to stir up controversy but its nonsense to think true, pros are pros for a reason.
14 What Sport has the Best 'Athletes'?
A very personal debate as people want the sport they played to be considered the most athletic. NFL players may be the sport where athleticism is most important, although that depends on the position. The NBA is full of astounding athletes but is still at its core a sport that centers on the skill of shooting a basketball as supreme athletes with limited skill routinely struggle in the NBA (see Tyrus Thomas). Baseball and hockey have very specific athletic skill-sets and it's often argued the hardest thing to do in sports is hit a baseball.
Soccer may have the best case as their players are conditioned better than any sport and their level of coordination is off the charts. The debate is as endless as the list of sports could be but they usually come down to the definition of athleticism and what traits we consider most important.
13 Should We Still Have a Draft Lottery?
Instead of hockey craved Toronto or the bad luck Buffalo, the Edmonton Oilers won the first overall pick this year, and the right to draft hockey phenom Connor McDavid. It seems unfair as the Oilers have squandered three first overall picks in recent years but that's the system in place with the draft lottery. The lottery intends to give all non-playoff teams a shot at winning the first overall pick but doesn't do enough to deter teams from tanking for a better pick. Teams increasingly would rather have a high pick in the draft than finish in 8th place and get knocked in the first round.
The NBA has toyed with new ideas for the draft including set years for when you would get which picks, regardless of record. The NFL takes the chance out of it by awarding picks strictly on team records. Leagues have an interest in ensuring teams try to win and be competitive and changes to the draft lottery made be needed to make sure they do that.
12 Should We Get Rid of Conferences?
This year in the first round of the NBA playoffs the Clippers and the Spurs are playing in by far the best series. The question however is whether they should be. The Spurs and Clippers are likely two of the top four teams in the league and instead of meeting in a semi-final, they will be going home before the Wizards and that's because of conferences. The argument is favor of conferences usually focuses on two points, it promotes rivalries and it is necessary for scheduling and travel reasons.
The scheduling and travel reasoning is out of date as conferences were created before chartered flights replaced long bus trips. Rivalries are also difficult to come by in sports today and those that exist would continue to regardless of conferences because those rivalries are formed during the playoffs. I appreciate that some of my teams make the playoffs largely because of being in the weaker conference but I can understand the frustration of Thunder fans watching the Brooklyn Nets take their losing record into the playoffs while Russell Westbrook watches from home.
11 Should Games be Decided on Penalty Shots?
Penalty shots definitely add a level of excitement but there's always a question of whether a hockey or soccer game should be decided by something that doesn't resemble what the actual game looks like. Hockey and soccer both use extra time to decide a winner but the debate is whether extra time should continue until the winner is decided or should something like penalty shots be used to decide.
In soccer penalties make a bit more sense, as goals are harder to come by and teams often stack their defense, making it nearly impossible to score in some games. In hockey the move to penalties was made in regular season games because it was exciting to watch and because long overtime games in the regular season would be exhausting for players, especially if they had a game the next day. There are other ways to promote scoring to end the game such as playing 3-on-3 in hockey but for now we sports fans either love or hate penalty shots, depending on how their team does.
10 Should There be Fighting in Hockey?
Whenever the winter Olympics come around it's amazing to watch what hockey should look like- fluid, with skill and speed across the whole lineup. The assumption in hockey is that fighting is needed as a deterrent that regulates the game, keeps everything in check. In recent years enforcers are becoming rare as teams recognize that carrying a player on the roster just to drop the gloves may not be the best use of a roster spot. Hockey fans are split on the debate with some acknowledging the excitement and tradition associated with fighting while others would rather see the best players using their skill. The increasing spotlight on head injuries and the effects on the brain will continue to force hockey to look critically at fighting and see if there is still a place in the game for it.
9 Owners vs. Players
The rich versus the richer, it's a debate that all sports fan hate having to endure. Putting aside the fact that players are enormously well-paid let's acknowledge that players are no different than everyone else; they want to be paid what they feel entitled to. Owners however are the ones bearing the financial risk of owning a franchise. They invested ridiculous amounts of money with the intention of a seeing return on that investment.
Within the past five years, we've seen a lockout in the NHL, NBA and NFL.
Many of the issues that are debated during the bargaining stage aren't just how the entire pot of money is divided between the two sides, but other issues including player safety and potential punishments for conduct. When the two sides can't get together and the players choose to strike its puts sport fans in the difficult position wanting to support their favorite players but also wanting the strike to end. Every collective bargaining is different, especially across different sports, but for fans who don't have access to closed door conversations its tough to know which side to support.
8 PEDs and the Baseball Hall of Fame
The steroids era in baseball saw some of the biggest hitting numbers of any generation but hall of fame voters are struggling with what to do with these players. Players like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire deserve to be first-ballot players based on their numbers but remain on the outside looking in because of their steroid use. The era has also cast a shadow on players who are suspected of PED use but haven't been proven and its hurt their chances also. Some voters have called for concrete rules about how vote of these players. Some fans think these players are cheaters with no place in the hall while others want to acknowledge the era by putting them in with an asterisk. Bonds was the best player of his era but until there is a decision about how things move forward, he'll remain the best player not in the hall.
7 Run to Set Up the Pass or Pass to Set Up the Run?
In the past two seasons we saw the Seahawks thrive off of their run game and the play-action plays that Russell Wilson excelled at, largely because of the effect of Marshawn Lynch's running ability. Its becoming more common for teams with great QBs like Brady and Manning to be able to plug in unknown running backs and find success, largely because of the strength of their passing attacks. Teams are forced to play with more defensive backs which creates running lanes as we saw in Denver this past season with CJ Anderson. The question is whether teams should start by establishing the run or establishing the pass but the decision should be made based on the team's personnel and the coach's offensive system. This is the sports version of who came first, the chicken or the egg (p.s. the answer is the egg).
6 Why Aren't College Athletes Paid?
During UCONNs March Madness run in 2014, Shabazz Napier talked about how there were nights he couldn't afford to feed himself and for someone who single-handedly made the NCAA a lot of money, that seems wrong. A recent class action suit against the NCAA found in favor of the athletes and it is unknown what the repercussions of this may be. While the logistics of how much gets paid to who and through what mechanisms is complex it shouldn't be considered too complicated to figure out.
The NCAA made close to $1 billion last year, 84% of which came from March Madness alone. Studies have found that the average NCAA basketball player in worth $212,000 per year and some stars like Andrew Wiggins or Julius Randel during their time in the NCAA were worth approximately $1 million to their schools. That's a lot more than their education would cost.
While the argument for basketball got a lot of attention this year, the same applies for all college sports.
5 Pitching or Hitting
The common perception is that pitching wins in the World Series, and pitcher salaries are starting to align to this perception. Very few teams make it to the World Series without stud pitching, but the other side of the debate would argue this is why it is all the more important to have a stacked lineup. Research into this debate shows that although the difference is not as great as it is made out to be, pitching does tend to lead to better outcomes in the playoffs. Very few World Series winners have below average pitching as measured through stats like ERA or WHIP. Hitting is of course very important and champs tend to have higher than average OPS. It is really difficult to hit against Clayton Kershaw in the playoffs, so should you get Kershaw or one the few hitters that can get to him, that's for MLB teams to decide.
4 What is the Best Team Ever?
The best team ever is a difficult thing to debate because it requires comparing different sports, and touches on how we measure greatness. The best team in the NBA was probably the 96' Bulls who set the league record with 72 wins on their way to winning the championship. In the NFL there was the undefeated Dolphins but the team most would say was the best ever is the 1985 Chicago Bears and their legendary defense who dominated in the playoffs beating their opponents 91-10 in their three games. In the NHL, the Oilers of the late 80s with Messier and Gretzky dominated the era, putting up scoring records that remain today. A truly great team can often be measured by not just wins or championships but the degree of wins, as in how much they dominated their opponents. We can never tell what the best team ever is, but it's fun to debate.
3 MJ or LeBron
A comparison of two very different players but very much the players who defined their generations. It's difficult to remember that Michael took eight years to win his first ring because after that he owned the league. MJ is a singular force that had an unmatched killer instinct and competitive nature. Unlike MJ however, LeBron is a more of a facilitator, one of the best passers ever, and a dominant athlete. MJ has something that LeBron may never get, six rings. LeBron still has time in his career to catch MJ but any comparison of the two needs to recognize how much MJ was able to lead the Bulls to two 3-peats.
2 Who is the Best QB of All Time?
Tom Brady put another ring in his legacy winning this year's Super Bowl, picking apart an all-time secondary and strengthening his case as the best QB ever. Everyone has their favorite, but this is really a three man race, Brady, Manning, Montana. Montana always came up big in the clutch, with a 127.8 QB rating in his Super Bowl appearances and always led his team on game winning drives on his way to four championships. Manning has the best numbers of all three owning almost every passing statistic there is but he has come up short in playoffs and against Brady in their careers. Brady now has four rings to tie himself with his hero Joe Montana. Brady has led some of the most prolific offenses in NFL history and continues to produce. It's interesting to think however what kind of numbers Montana would have put up if he had played in the pass-happy offenses of today's NFL.
1 Defense Wins Championships
It's as as cliché as it gets, but every year leading up to the Super Bowl the pundits will argue, defense wins championships. In the past two seasons we have seen this argument play out with defense coming out on top when the Seahawks trounced the Broncos, only for offense to prove its worth this year when the Patriots beat the Seahawks. The debate is a draw, as studies of 10,000 NFL games found that the better defensive team won 66.5% of the time and the better offense won 67.4% of the time. This includes regular season, so what about champions, are they the best offense or defense? As you might imagine champions tend to excel on both sides. In 45 Super Bowls the better defensive team won 29 times and the better offense won 25 times, with 14 champions who were the better offensive and defensive team.
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