Top sports debates decided

Stop arguing! We've put to rest every bleacher brawl you've ever heard

Updated: June 13, 2012, 2:27 PM ET
By Mag Staff | ESPN The Magazine

The Debate IssueIllustration by Sean McCabeWill Tiger ever win another major? Who won the rings? Kobe? MJ?

This story appears in the June 25 Debate Issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!


What should college football
players be paid?




Let's end one debate right now: College athletes should be paid. How much they deserve is the real question. To figure it out, we focused solely on the numbers in the college sport that matters most, football. What would they tell us about the value of scholarships, players' current compensation?

Schools like to argue that a degree is fair compensation for student-athletes. Well, let's put that argument to the Econ 101 test. In the 2011 fiscal year, FBS programs netted $1.6 billion in revenue, minus nonscholarship expenses -- or $164,000 per player. The average scholarship for those players? Just $27,000. That leaves a surplus of $137,000 per player, which the schools, by spirit of their own argument, should return to the students. Fair is fair.

All conferences aren't created equal, of course. As the chart shows, players in the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in excess of the value of their scholarships. Smaller conferences net far less income (although only nine FBS schools failed to break even). So if we're imagining a world in which teams compensate players based on the surplus they generate (and we are), rich programs would pay more to land the best players. Which would make college football like ... well, everything else in the world. -- Jeff Phillips and Tyler Williams

Did Sonny Liston throw his 1965 fight
against Muhammad Ali?




[+] EnlargeMuhammad Ali
AP ImagesListon was KO'd for the first time in his career in his 1965 fight against Ali.

In the middle of the first round, Ali's right glove is 18 inches from Liston's head, and Liston is moving forward. In roughly a tenth of a second, Ali drives his glove into Liston's jaw; although some ringside observers would later claim that no contact was made, the video shows waves that visibly ripple down the right side of Liston's torso.

Given Ali's size (6'3", 206), the effective mass of his hand and forearm (4.4 pounds), Liston's head weight (10 pounds) and the duration of Ali's glove acceleration, we can estimate that the punch puts 171 pounds of force to Liston's head. Boxers can land punches with more than 1,000 pounds of force, but often punch type and placement are what matter most.

Studies show that punches to the jaw, like Ali's shot on Liston, can twist the head and neck, which can stretch the neurons in the brain and spinal cord, causing immediate neural dysfunction. This impact causes rotational acceleration, which is more damaging than the translational acceleration caused by punches that snap the head backward.

Video footage shows Liston's legs twitching, apparently involuntarily, after the knockdown, which suggests that Liston was experiencing a neurological episode. And you can't fake that.

Was the immaculate reception actually
a legal reception?




In the box score, the climactic play in the Steelers-Raiders 1972 AFC divisional playoff game reads simply: "Franco Harris 60-yard pass from Terry Bradshaw." The unanswered question, however, is how the deflected ball got there. The rule governing forward passes in 1972 didn't permit consecutive touches by offensive players. So was it a legal catch? ESPN Sport Science analyzed the tape.

Down 7-6 with 22 seconds left, Bradshaw drops back to pass and sees his RB John "Frenchy" Fuqua sprinting across the middle of the field. Bradshaw, under pressure, throws a 43 mph bullet toward Fuqua as Raiders FS Jack Tatum closes in. When the two players converge on the ball, it deflects backward at a speed of 25 mph. But whom did it bounce off first -- and last?

Had Tatum touched the ball before Fuqua did, it would've been at the point of the incoming spiral, and at that orientation, the coefficient of restitution -- the ball's springiness -- would have been too low to launch the deflection at 25 mph. So Fuqua must have tipped the ball sideways first, allowing Tatum to then deflect the softer, springier side of the ball. This gave the rebound enough pop to travel nine yards in a fairly horizontal orientation into the hands of Franco Harris. Immaculate indeed. And legal.

Which college basketball team was the
best ever?





1971-72
UCLA Bruins

... And which college baksetball team was the best not to win it all?


1998-99
Duke Blue Devils

Who wouldn't want to see a version of March Madness in which teams from different eras play each other. But until someone cracks the time machine issue, the best way to play those games is through a computer. To that end, I've found that a metric I created -- called the "Rating," which weighs scoring margin more heavily than wins -- works best in estimating game outcomes. And going by the Rating, the 1971-72 UCLA Bruins come out on top. That team, featuring center Bill Walton, went 300 and won the national title. The only non-UCLA team to crack the top five? The 1998-99 Duke Blue Devils, who crushed teams by 24.7 ppg. However, one of their two losses came against UConn in the title game -- so Coach K will have to take solace in winning another debate: the best team that didn't win a title. -- Jeff Sagarin

Should Boise State ever have been allowed
to play for the national championship?




Boise State has the best winning percentage in FBS college football over the past decade and twice capped undefeated seasons with BCS bowl victories (in 2006 and 2009). But according to FEI, a drive-based, opponent-adjusted measure of team efficiency, the Broncos were never one of the top two teams in the country in that span. In fact, the 2011 season's one-loss squad was their best ever, and it entered bowl season ranked just 11th in FEI -- a far cry from being title-game worthy.

What's the hang-up? Simple: Boise State's weak schedule. Across the nation each year, up to 30 teams have single-season schedules that are tougher. The Broncos' slate is so weak that it'd be statistically easier for an elite team (top-five caliber) to play Boise State's schedule three times and finish 360 than to go 12-0 against a BCS champ's slate (see the chart below). Yes, the current system is stacked against the Broncos, who have little control over which teams they play. But until they run through the weekly gantlet that top teams face, they can't be rewarded with a title shot. -- Brian Fremeau

Will Tiger ever win another major?




[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesIf past is prologue, expect Woods to end his four-year majorless slump soon.

A swing change, Tiger Woods likes to say, is "a process." And he should know. In 1997, following his first Masters victory, Woods famously initiated a teardown with then-coach Butch Harmon. It's easy to forget today that Woods, at the time, went 10 majors and 51 tournaments before netting another big one. In 2004, Tiger embarked on another swing switcheroo -- this time with Hank Haney -- and needed 24 starts to win another major.

Why bring this up? If you hadn't noticed, Woods has been enduring the longest major drought of his career (he hasn't won one since the 2008 U.S. Open), part of which has coincided with Swing Change III: Sean Foley's Revenge. It's been 27 events since they started their "process," and Tiger fans are hysterical. Will Tiger ever win a major again?!?

In search of an answer, we compiled, for each "slump," Tiger's week-by-week all-around ranking (a measure of eight stats, from greens in regulation to putts, against all other players in a tournament's field). And the pattern was clear: Regardless of wins and losses, Woods telegraphs when his game is good enough to win majors with a succession of single-digit all-around rankings. And once again -- although scandal and injuries knocked him to previously unseen depths -- Tiger, as the chart shows, is trending toward his old self. If history is destiny, that can mean only one thing: More majors for Tiger. And soon. -- Scott T. Miller

Who deserves more credit: Phil Jackson
or Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan?




Phil Jackson, as both fans and detractors will admit, has had the good fortune of inheriting a few stars. But the degree to which they built his legacy or he aided theirs remains, well, debatable.

To settle the argument of who deserves credit, we identified five pairs of "transitional" seasons for Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan-like the last season Kobe played for Jackson (2010-11) and the first without him (2011-12). We then compared the performances of the stars and their teams with and without the Zen Master. On average, Jackson's presence on the sideline coincided with a 5.3-point gain in the team's net efficiency (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions), or the 2011-12 equivalent of turning the Jazz into the Heat. The two stars performed better as individuals under Jackson too. MJ and Kobe raised their PERs by nearly two points relative to the season without Phil. Here's the rub: Even if you credit the stars for 100 percent of their own improvement, that only explains about 30 percent of the overall team gains. Clearly, Phil was doing more than just recommending good books all those years. -- Neil Paine

Was the 1985 NBA draft lottery rigged?




The New York Knicks were struggling. Georgetown center Patrick Ewing was a can't-miss prospect. The NBA needed good news in its top media market. When commissioner David Stern plucked the Knicks envelope from a clear plastic globe during the NBA's first-ever draft lottery in 1985 -- delivering Ewing to New York -- it was just about perfect.

Too perfect, perhaps. Like magic, one could say. Was the process manipulated in the lottery's first year to favor Stern's hometown team, as many conspiracy theorists charge? The debate has raged for decades, fueled by these four theories. So to solve the riddle of the magic, we turned to -- who else? -- a magician. -- Patrick Hruby

[+] EnlargePatrick Ewing
AP Photo/Marty LederhandlerDavid Stern (near right) places a curse on Patrick Ewing.

1.The Bent Corner
The Theory: Somebody -- likely accounting firm partner/envelope integrity guarantor Jack Wagner -- bent the corner of the Knicks envelope, allowing Stern to distinguish it from the six other envelopes inside the globe.
Supporting Evidence: While placing envelopes in the globe, Wagner slams one -- and only one -- against the side, possibly creating a corner bend; during the mixing process, an envelope with an upturned corner can be seen inside the globe. After drawing that same envelope, Stern appears to flick the bent corner with his finger.
Reality Check: "Stern appears to be just fidgeting," says Richard Kaufman, editor of the magic magazine Genii. "I don't see anything more. If he was bending or smoothing the corner, he would need to use two fingers or hold the envelope against something."
Verdict: Commendably creative theory but also impractical.

2. The Frozen Envelope
The Theory: The Knicks envelope was frozen backstage, rendering it cool to the touch and easy for Stern to identify. "There are magic tricks that work that way," Kaufman says.
Supporting Evidence: When Stern reaches into the globe to select the Knicks envelope, he actually grabs three, which he holds and flips before discarding the top two.
Reality Check: "That's just human nature," Kaufman says. "When you go to the store and buy something, do you take the item from the top? No, you take the second or third one, because no one wants the thing that has been touched. Stern could have been nervous, not thinking and done that naturally."
Verdict: Never mind shopping habits. The timing simply doesn't work. Upon removal from a freezer, a paper envelope remains cold for only about a minute. How do we know? We tried it ourselves.

3. The Walk 'N Switch
The Theory: After the envelopes were pulled from the globe, they were placed on a wall before being opened, leading some to posit that those envelopes were surreptitiously switched while the audience was distracted -- a standard magic trick. "The thing you end up seeing at the end," Kaufman says, "is not the same thing you started with."
Supporting Evidence: The broadcast frequently cuts to shots of Stern and team reps, leaving envelopes out of sight.
Reality Check: The lottery was held in the Starlight Room of Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria hotel before media and onlookers. "We have to assume that if anyone saw something suspicious, they probably would have said something," Kaufman says. "Too bad it's a room full of journalists and not magicians. Magicians would be watching for that."
Verdict: Too difficult to execute reliably. Because all seven envelopes were opened onstage, conspirators would have to have switched the Knicks envelope and at least one other to avoid duplicate and/or missing teams.

4. The Mark of Stern
The Theory: Forget freezers and bent corners -- the Knicks envelope was marked in a way that only Stern could see. "It would be very easy to cut a small piece of lead off a pencil and put it under your fingernail," Kaufman says. "Then you can add a mark, and Stern can pick it at any time."
Supporting Evidence: Wagner handles the envelopes with his bare hands. As the globe spins to mix the envelopes, Stern appears to be watching them out of the corner of his eye. He takes nearly four seconds to open a simple latch on the globe, possibly buying time to spot a marked envelope.
Reality Check: Early in the broadcast, Stern says Wagner has maintained "continuous and exclusive possession of the envelopes," and that "as of this moment, [Wagner] does not know which logo is in which envelope." If both statements are true, then who could have marked the Knicks envelope?
Verdict: There's no proof -- or evidence -- that the fix was in. Stern is clever, but he's no David Blaine. And the Ewing-to-Knicks conspiracy theories? Time to make those disappear.

Who was the greatest running back
of all time?




To track down the greatest of all time, you have to pick the right angle. Should you judge a player based on his peak or his longevity? Well, we at Football Outsiders (FO) did both, and no matter how you slice it, Jim Brown is the top running back in NFL history.

Our first step was to analyze every season since 1950 to determine a back's total value, based not only on his stats (yards, TDs, fumbles) but his team's as well (for example, its ratio of rushing first downs to passing first downs). We then normalized the results based on strength of schedule, the NFL's typical offensive output in a given time period and strategic variations. For example, modern runners' TD totals suffer because teams pass in the red zone so much.

All our math identified the top three runners over time spans ranging from a single season to 10 years. As shown in the chart to the left, Brown cracked seven of those lists, finishing in the top spot five times. In fact, all nine of his seasons landed among the top 500 ever. That, like the man himself, is as good as it gets. -- Aaron Schatz

Should Brett Hull's Stanley Cup-clinching
goal in the 1999 finals have been allowed?




You can't be half-pregnant; you're either in the goal crease or you're not. That was the NHL's point when, prior to the 1998-99 season, it tightened up its crease rule. So much as a skate blade in the crease ahead of the puck? No goal. No judgment call. Simple as that. Only it wasn't.

With just over five minutes left in the third OT in Game 6 of the 1999 Finals, Stars sniper Brett Hull took a shot. The rebound bounced outside the Sabres' crease. Hull kicked the puck to his stick, but as he did so, his left skate slid into the blue paint. He shot and scored. As Stars players poured onto the ice to celebrate, on-ice ref Terry Gregson called for video review. The goal was confirmed, and the Stars won the Cup. Moments after, ESPN found a camera angle that showed Hull's foot was in the crease while the puck was not. And the debate began.

Then-NHL director of officiating Bryan Lewis explained that Hull had maintained "possession and control" of the puck when it moved outside the crease, allowing his leg to be legally in the blue paint. But the rulebook made no mention of this exception. In fact, the rule had been called black-and-white all season: toe in, no goal. Based on the letter of the law, the goal should have been disallowed. Simple as that. -- Lindsay Berra

Greater accomplishment: Batting .406
or hitting in 56 consecutive games?




The summer of 1941 produced a pair of numbers that haven't been equaled since: Ted Williams' .406 average and Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. But which mark is tougher to match? It's actually not that close. By establishing Williams' and DiMaggio's base skill level, based on their BA from 1940 to '42, then using some advanced probability, we were able to calculate the odds of each feat. We also looked at the players who have come closest to tracking down the two marks and calculated what their chances were of matching them. Amazingly, we found that when Tony Gwynn hit .394 in 1994, his odds of hitting .406 were actually better than Williams' were in '41. We also found that a long hitting streak is vastly harder to achieve than even a historic average. Both findings make sense: You can make up for an oh-fer with a few multihit games in pursuit of .406, while that same hitless day sends you back to square one when chasing DiMaggio. So give it up for 56. -- Dan Szymborski

The Tuck RuleIllustration by Chris PhilpotSports Science replayed the Tuck Rule, courtesy of the 2001 AFC divisional playoffs.

Should the Tuck Rule have been ruled
a fumble?




The 2001 AFC divisional playoffs introduced the world to the Tuck Rule. The rule in question (NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2) stated that if a passer lost possession as he was attempting to tuck the ball back toward his body, it was a forward pass. But if the passer had already tucked the ball into his body and then lost possession, it was a fumble. Simple rule, no? Well, no. The Raiders were clinging to a 13-10 lead over the Patriots with 1:50 to play when on a first-and-10 from the Raiders' 42, Tom Brady dropped back to pass. We asked ESPN Sport Science to replay the rest. Here's what it found:

With his elbow cocked at roughly 80 degrees, the ball is at its highest point as Brady begins his throwing motion with his shoulders turned and his elbow moving forward.

During the motion, the ball moves forward one foot, but it's clear Brady has decided not to pass, as his elbow angle remains unchanged and the ball is moving downward. This is the start of the tuck.

As Brady brings the ball down, the angle between his elbow and torso decreases from 90 degrees -- a throwing motion -- to 45 degrees. The ball is now 18 inches from his face mask.

By the time Raiders CB Charles Woodson makes contact with the QB, Brady has placed both hands on the ball, which is now less than a foot from his chest, and his right arm is fully tucked against his torso. Woodson's hit jars the ball loose, and Raiders LB Greg Biekert falls on it.

Conclusion: On the field, the play was ruled
a fumble, before the video judge overruled it and declared it an incomplete pass. Ten years later, we're overturning it again. Brady had brought the ball into his body and had tucked it with both hands. The play was a fumble. Raiders' ball.

Now, if only we could pull all the players out of retirement to finish the game.

Which is the best soccer league in Europe?




To answer this question, we enlisted the help of ESPN's Soccer Power Index (SPI), an algorithm designed to forecast soccer results. Debates on Europe's top league usually devolve into arguments over which country has the strongest overall team -- comparing Spain's Barcelona and Real Madrid with England's Manchester clubs, for example. But the true test of a league's strength is not at the top of the table but in its quality at the middle and bottom. So SPI grouped the top five, middle five and bottom five squads from England's Premier League, Spain's La Liga, Italy's Serie A and Germany's Bundesliga to create three fictitious 20-team leagues. SPI then simulated each of these leagues 10,000 times. In the top group, Barcelona and Real Madrid -- arguably the two best teams in the world -- predictably won a combined 91.2 percent of simulations. Meanwhile, although Liverpool dominated the middle league, La Liga sides Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao and Mallorca all averaged a top-five finish. Similarly, in the bottom group, the Premier League's Aston Villa won most often, but Villarreal, Granada and Real Zaragoza were all among the best five. Overall, La Liga teams had an average finish of 8.8 across the three leagues, compared with the EPL's 9.9. (Serie A finished at 11.26 and the Bundesliga last at 12.10.) -- Albert Larcada

Will the U.S. men's team win the World Cup
in the next 50 years?




Until the 1970s, the U.S. soccer team was not so good. Since then, its rise has been inexorable, as the chart shows. The cumulative winning percentage of the national team eclipsed .500 for the first time in 2006, during a spectacular decade that saw the squad reach the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002. But when will the U.S. actually lift the trophy? To answer that, we let the numbers do the kicking. Since 1970, the cumulative winning percentage of the eventual World Cup winner going into the tournament has averaged .669; the highest was .728 (Brazil, 2002), and the lowest was .625 (France, 1998). If we extrapolate the remarkably consistent progression of Team USA, it should take another 30 years (2042) for the team to break the minimum Cup threshold -- and another decade to achieve even odds. America's soccer moment is coming. Although, look out -- the Chinese probably won't be far behind. -- Stefan Szymanski, co-author of Soccernomics

Is anchoring a putter cheating?




Rule 14-1 of the Rules of Golf is simple, yet ripe for interpretation. The ball must be "fairly struck," but what constitutes fairness? Scooping the ball out of the bunker instead of hitting it? According to golf's governing bodies, that's cheating. Pushing your three-footer into the hole instead of striking it cleanly? Also cheating. Stabilizing your elongated putter against your chest instead of putting with a normal-length club? Not cheating ... for now. The USGA and R&A are currently and controversially examining Rule 14-1 in relation to belly putters. There is clear precedent to outlaw them:

In 1968, the USGA and R&A banned Sam Snead's famous croquet-style putting stance -- creating a new rule, 16-1e, to do so. At the time, then-USGA executive director Joe Dey said that putting in such a manner, with one foot on each side of the target line and Snead's body facing the hole, began to make golf "look like another game." By that criteria, the answer is clear. Kids are learning to putt with clubs the length of hockey sticks, and tour pros are relying on elongated putters to steady otherwise shaky strokes (see: Scott, Adam). More than 40 years after banning Snead's stroke simply because it looked funky, the USGA and R&A have no choice but to follow their own example. -- Scott T. Miller

Who is the best player in NHL history?




[+] EnlargeWayne Gretzky
Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty ImagesSorry, Gordie Howe: Wayne Gretzky is the best the sport has to offer.

With apologies to Gordie "Mr. Hockey" Howe and "Super Mario" Lemieux, there is only one Great One. As the stats show, Wayne Gretzky deserves the title of the NHL's best player. Using goals versus threshold, a metric that assigns value to a player, in goals, above what a replacement player would contribute, we put the big three to the test. GVT enables us to see a player's effect on goal differential while adjusting for the strength of the league. It's a fine tool to compare players from different eras. Gretzky demolishes his rivals in the metric, beating Howe 42.6 to 36.7 when you average each player's best three years, and crushing Lemieux 40.8 to 26.8 over a top five-year run. In total GVT and playoff GVT, Gretzky (520.4/112.7) far surpasses Howe (465.9/54.5) and Lemieux (327.3/56.9). Lemieux does nip Gretzky in GVT per 82 games, 29.3 to 28.7, but that's about the only edge No. 99 doesn't own. His greatness can't be denied. -- Neil Greenberg

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