The entire point of spectator sports is to crown a champion. What fun is it if we don't find out who is the best?
But finding out who is the best is never simple. The St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series, but nobody in baseball will tell you the Cards are the best team.
Of the eight teams who made the baseball playoffs, St. Louis had the worst record. They just got hot at the right time, and good for them.
College football struggles annually to find out who is "the best." With hundreds of teams in the NCAA, they can't very well play each other down to a single champion. Nobody'd be left standing.
So, college football goes with rankings. Sportswriters used to vote who was best, then the coaches, and now they've handed over the duty to a computer. Nobody likes the results. Everybody hungers for a "true champion," whatever that might mean.
The problem gets worse when the ranking fetish spreads into areas where you just can't rank.
For instance, Rolling Stone magazine came out with a list a few years back entitled "The Top 100 Rock and Roll Songs of All Time."
What gives some magazine editors the right to anoint a champion of rock and roll? Did they hold playoffs?
Did "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones knock off Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" with a home run in the bottom of the ninth?
Imagine a tournament-style bracket which pits the nations of the world against each other.
Although ranked nearly last in pre-war polls, Afghanistan knocked off the defending champion British before shocking the No. 2 ranked Soviet Union. Finally, they humbled the No. 1 ranked United States by playing them to a tie in a game now in its thirty-fifth inning.
Afghanistan clearly deserves to be ranked number one!
Thirty years ago as a high school senior, I was given the task at graduation of eulogizing a favorite teacher who had passed away during the year. After carefully writing out the brief speech, which I thought was perfect, I proudly took the paper out to the field for my dad to review.
Dad shut off the tractor, read the speech, thought a bit and said, "Well, it is good, except for one thing.
I couldn't imagine he could find fault with my perfect oration, so I was taken aback.
"Always avoid the superlative!" Dad said.
In the interests of creating a touching tribute, I had filled the speech with phrases like "he was the best..." and "he was the most..."
I had decided to crown a champion.
Not wise, said Dad.
"Every time you announce that somebody is the best," Dad said, "you invite your audience to disagree."
"Instead of saying he was the best coach," Dad went on, "say that he was an excellent coach."
"That way you won't put anybody in second place," Dad went on, "and you won't raise yourself to the position of making a judgement you may not be entitled to make."
I reluctantly purged the speech of the superlatives. I had really wanted to crown a champion. As sound as Dad's advice was, giving a speech that didn't crown a champion wasn't as satisfying.
But over the years, the wisdom of refusing to rank has become obvious. We drive ourselves nuts when we try to turn every endeavor into a competition for a championship.
Who is the best cook? There are contests on TV. In reality, turning the art of food into a competition is blasphemy. Every great meal is a triumph with everybody who partakes a winner!
Who is the best writer? A mud wrestling tournament would probably be as fair a way to decide as any.
And finally, what is the greatest rock and roll song in history? The question is stupid, one that should be confined to a loud, well-lubricated conversation by ex-jocks around a camp fire during deer hunting. Instead, just say, "I really like 'Gimme Shelter'" and discuss why.
There's no need to always crown a champion.