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Prister: Obsession with ranks (Sept. 9)

By Eric Prister | Friday, September 9, 2011

This is the fifth of a new Observer feature. A series of 10 Observer sportswriters will have columns appear in this space on a bi-weekly rotation. Hopefully some of these writers will grab your attention, and you’ll know when and where to find more of their thoughts.

Sports fans, analysts and commentators today are obsessed with rankings. In an age of the ESPYs and Top Plays, of Web Gems and the BCS, all teams, all players, all plays and all achievements are ranked.

ESPN makes a ranking of not only college football teams, which while subjective still matters to some degree, but the teams in each of the ‘Big Four’ professional sports on a weekly basis, which are purely subjective and speculative, and which play no role whatsoever in the leagues themselves. Today’s sports fan is obsessed with trying to answer the question of “who/what/where is the best?”

Never was this more clear than during the 2011 NBA Playoffs. Yes, the LeBron-choked-Wade-is-the-best-player-of-the-Big-Three-or-is-it-Big-Two 2011 NBA Playoffs. But the ranking didn’t have anything to do with LeBron or the Big Three — analysts, and by proxy fans, were obsessed with finding Dirk Nowitzki’s rank in the history of the NBA.

I heard Nowitzki called one of the top-50 players of all-time, one of the top-20, one of the top-15 and even one of the top-10. On the surface, some of these claims seem quite reasonable. Certainly he is one of the top-50, and even top-20 is possible. But the claim that Dirk Nowitzki and his now one NBA title is one of the top-10 basketball players of all-time is ludicrous.

This column is not meant to bash Dirk. He is an incredible player who had a post-season for the ages. The problem is the obsession with ranking, not that Dirk was one of many players subjected to it.

If I were to ask if Michael Jordan was one of the top-5 basketball players of all-time, the answer would undoubtedly be resoundingly affirmative. What about Wilt Chamberlain? Of course. Bill Russell? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? Naturally. Larry Bird? Magic Johnson? That’s six players already. So, though the answer to the question “Is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar among the top-five players of all-time?” seems obvious, it isn’t. He’s one of the top-six, but that’s as much as can be said.

It is easy to haphazardly assign ranks to players or teams without putting much thought into it. But by this point, professional sports have a long history and it is very tempting to rank current events higher than older ones – they’re more fresh in our minds. But too often claims are made with no real basis and with very little actual thought behind them.

Why does it matter who is the greatest quarterback of all-time (clearly it’s John Elway)? Who cares which team is the best dynasty of the 2000s (it has to be the Patriots and their three rings)? The Mt. Rushmore of Sports (Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali)? What are we doing?

Sports are by nature objective. One team wins and one team loses, based on how many points they score. But it is also incredibly subjective. The strike zone in baseball, charges in basketball and pass interference calls in football all rely on the subjective judgment of an official. Sports analysis relies almost entirely on the subjective opinion of so-called experts. Subjectivity is not something that can be, nor should be, removed from the world of sports. Just take a minute to think about something before you claim it to be true.

The views expressed in this  Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Eric Prister is a graduate student in theological studies. He can be reached at eprister@nd.edu.