1980s vs. Today: Superstar athletes   

Updated: June 5, 2008, 12:46 PM ET

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The 1980s vs. Today
Was the sports world better back in the 1980s? Or are we better off today? Page 2 has the answers, specifically looking at …

Weinreb: Comparing/contrasting cheating in the '80s versus today

The ballpark experience
The sports media
The SI swimsuit issue
Sports video games
Superstar athletes
Fantasy games
Lakers vs. Celtics

You can argue that the expanding reach of sports media caused the explosion in sports' popularity, attendance and franchise values that occurred in the 1980s. But the players had a lot to do with it, too. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were at the height of their powers in the NHL, Montana-to-Rice was the best pitch-and-catch duo in NFL history, Lawrence Taylor produced the most cringe-worthy hits ever seen, Cal Ripken Jr., Mike Schmidt, Wade Boggs, Rickey Henderson and Tony Gwynn dominated baseball … and we haven't even touched on Magic versus Bird, the single-greatest mano a mano duel in sports history, or the launching point of the incomparable career of Michael Jordan.

Pros: You've got the greatest quarterback of all time (Montana), the greatest NFL defensive player of all time (Taylor), the greatest hockey player (Gretzky) and the greatest basketball player/greatest athlete ever (Jordan), all competing at the same time. With apologies to Kobe and KG, a huge chunk of the excitement over this year's NBA Finals stems from what Bird and Magic did a quarter-century ago. Plus, when superstar athletes played against each other in the '80s, there was often real hatred between them -- you knew these guys cared.

Cons: The legacies of some of these players have been tainted. As great as Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds were, they're more readily linked with Mindy McCready and flaxseed oil today. Taylor has been linked to cocaine use and other unsavory practices. Most shocking of all was the "Saturday Night Live" revelation of what Joe Montana does in the privacy of his own room.

Wayne Gretzky

AP Photo

There's no one quite like Gretzky these days. At least not yet.

A convergence of better scouting, better training routines and natural selection has given us the biggest, strongest, fastest athletes in sports history. Kobe and LeBron, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and LaDainian Tomlinson, Sid the Kid, A-Rod, Pujols … it's a murderer's row of talent.

Pros: Many of today's best players resemble evolutionary versions of yesterday's stars. LeBron was an NBA-ready hybrid of Jordan and Magic before his senior prom. A-Rod is what Mike Schmidt would have been had he hit for average. Tiger Woods has all the rise-to-the-occasion swagger that Jack Nicklaus had, plus athletic ability that no other golfer can match. In some cases the jury's still out on whether today's superstars are actually better than their predecessors. But the raw talent is in many cases simply staggering -- and unprecedented.

Cons: You can talk about raw talent forever, but sports are measured by results, and some of today's brightest stars don't have any championships to cement their legacies. There always have been great players who never won the big one, of course (Charles Barkley), and it took some of the biggest all-time winners a long while before they won a championship (Jordan). But some of the biggest stars of this generation are ringless.

VERDICT: Though The Onion totally disagrees, it's the '80s, by a hair. Judging a player's greatness based on the number of championships he's won is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg proposition: Did he win because he was great, or did winning confirm his greatness? There are also the matters of team support (without great teammates, it's really hard to win it all) and expansion (more teams makes it tougher to win the big one). With that said, Bird, Magic, Montana and Gretzky were the symbols of the '80s, and their mantles are jam-packed; A-Rod and LeBron are two of today's best athletes, but neither has a ring. Of course, LeBron's only 23. And Tiger Woods may end up laying claim to Jordan's title of "best athlete of all time" by the time he's done.

Jonah Keri is a regular contributor to Page 2 and the editor and co-author of "Baseball Between the Numbers." You can contact him here.



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