Playing to Win: Using Sports to Develop Evidence-Based Arguments

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Playing to Win: Using Sports to Develop Evidence-Based Arguments

Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the Munich Olympics in 1936, broke or equaled nine Olympic records, also set three world records and single-handedly shattered Adolf Hitler’s myth of Aryan superiority; yet his record mark of 10.3 seconds in the 100 meters would today be 21 feet behind Usain Bolt’s record of 9.58. Would it be more fair to incorporate broader cultural accomplishments? Or should the Greatest of All Time focus solely on the numbers?

Student Challenge: Make your case for the G.O.A.T.

First, ask your students to decide which aspect of the G.O.A.T. debate they would like to tackle: greatest play, season, game, coach, athlete, et cetera.

Next, they should define their criteria for greatness: Does greatest mean the player you want to be up at bat in the seventh game of the World Series, two outs in the bottom of the ninth? Is it instead the number of an athlete’s victories? His or her longevity? The relative strength of the competition? The athlete’s impact within, as well as beyond, the sport?

Advance Evidence-Based Arguments and Tackle Counterarguments

Use a model text or two to help students move from mere assertion or opinion to rigorous, evidence-based argument. Here are a few excerpts to highlight how authors both support claims with evidence and anticipate counterarguments:

In “Is Russell Westbrook’s Season the Best Ever? Some Apples and Oranges to Pick From,” Jeré Longman supports his claims with evidence using sports statistics:

Westbrook’s season, while awesome, is not the greatest in N.B.A. history. That belongs to none other than Wilt Chamberlain in 1961-62 with the Philadelphia Warriors. Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds that season and (this may be the greatest stat in all of sports) 48.5 minutes played per game. Regulation games last 48 minutes, but the Warriors played seven games that extended for at least one period of overtime. During that 80-game regular season, Chamberlain played 3,882 of Philadelphia’s possible 3,890 minutes.

On March 2, 1962, Chamberlain famously scored 100 points against the Knicks, but that was only the culmination of a four-game stretch in which he scored 67, 65 and 61 points in the three previous games, according to basketball-reference.com. All told, he scored at least 60 points 15 times that season, including a stunning performance on Dec. 8, 1961, against the Lakers, in which Chamberlain delivered 78 points and 43 rebounds.

In “It’s Time to Appreciate Serena Williams’s Greatness,” Christopher Clarey anticipates counterarguments:

In light of that and Williams’s enduring excellence, there is momentum building behind the concept of deeming her the greatest player ever. It is a subjective process, one in which it is always tempting to give too much weight to the great champion in front of you, the one whose victory under pressure is freshest in your mind.

What is beyond dispute is that Williams has not been nearly as consistent in regular tour events during her career as players like Navratilova, Chris Evert and Graf.

Navratilova won 167 singles titles as well as 177 doubles titles in an era when doubles was much more prestigious than now. Evert won 154 singles titles. Graf, who did not play as long as Williams has played, won 107. Williams, for the moment, has 67, which puts her in a tie for sixth on the career list with Billie Jean King. …

But if “greatest” means the player who would have beaten all the rest at their peaks, it is hard not to feel a strong pull in Williams’s direction. Her power serving and her serving under pressure are weapons that no other great player has possessed to the same degree. Modern equipment is certainly a factor, but she is also complete off the ground and, guided by her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, improving her volleys, overheads and tactical variations.

Together, the class might analyze how these authors develop their case for G.O.A.T., for example, by defining their terms for greatness, providing evidence to support claims and anticipating and then considering potential counterclaims.

Here are additional resources, from The Times, and elsewhere, that can provide alternative mentor texts:

The Fine Line: What Makes Simone Biles the World’s Best Gymnast
Eliud Kipchoge Is the Greatest Marathoner, Ever
On Team of All-Time Greats, Pelé Shines Brightest
Golden State Warriors Are Closing In on History
Lindsey Vonn to Retire: Vonn Leaves as the Greatest Women’s Skier in History
G.O.A.T. Athletes: The Definitive List | Complex.com
Babe Didrikson, the Greatest Female Athlete of All Time? | The Guardian
Major League Baseball: The Case for Babe Ruth as the Best Ever | Bleacher Report
Tom Brady Has Surpassed Joe Montana as the G.O.A.T. | ESPN’s First Take (Video)
LeBron James Has Already Passed Michael Jordan as Greatest Player | Fox Sports – Undisputed (Video)

Ultimately, there is no right answer to the G.O.A.T. question. To some, Jesse Owens will always be the G.O.A.T. for his cultural impact; for others, Bill Russell’s 11 N.B.A. championships will trump all other measures. But that is the beauty of the debate. And in the end, it’s about the power of the argument to persuade others — at least for that day — who is the Greatest of All Time.

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