Monday, March 4, 2013

The Top 25: Bigger, Better, Faster, Farther (Or, The Idiocy of Rankings)

foam finger, we're #1, number one
There are no "We're #2" foam fingers.

by Adam Metz

And now (drum roll please . . . )  the Top 25 Longest Turds in the World!

Or, not really. Forgive the crass introduction, but I just keep waiting to see such a show break onto the scene of one of the many reality shows gracing today's television networks. Americans, we know, like to rank just about everything (and I'd bet my house that there's a college fraternity somewhere with just such a Top 25 ranking . . . but I digress).

We are a country obsessed with superlatives. Whether we are talking about academics, sports, or professional eating, we have found a way to determine who's the biggest, the fastest, and the best at just about everything. Most of the discussions about sports revolve around who is number one. This college basketball season is one of the most compelling in recent memories largely because no team has risen head and shoulders above all others. The number one team in the country has fallen several times in just the past few weeks.

This alone should make us question the whole idea of there even being a "Number One," except we can't stand the thought of that. Look at what has happened in recent years in college football. From two opinion polls, to computer rankings, to a combination of both . . . and now we're headed for a four-team playoff: we just can't stand the ambiguity of not knowing who is Number One. 

Dale Earnhardt Sr., mustache, NASCAR
Best athlete? No. Best mustache? Yes!
It's always interesting to see the kinds of programming that ESPN comes up with when they are in between major championship coverage (as we are right now). This week they've created a tournament bracket to determine the greatest athlete of all time, using their sports science metrics. Who was greater: Bo Jackson or Muhammad Ali? Jim Brown or Dale Earnhardt Sr.? (seriously?) American sports has devolved into a perennial pissing contest, constantly obsessing over which conference is best, which athlete is the greatest, who makes the sweetest dunk, who hits the longest home run, and on and on they go.
Admittedly, most of these discussions are superfluous exercises conjured up simply to give hardcore fans something to keep their interest in the offseason; hardly something to take too seriously. That is not to say, however, that this obsession with Number One doesn't have serious side effects. 

These seemingly harmless exercises in quantifying greatness are being felt in a real way in youth sports. Children grow up hearing their families as well as the media obsess over the best teams in the land, covering championships, and issuing constantly changing rankings. Watch any post-championship game coverage and inevitably the sports personalities will offer a "first look at next year's rankings." The desire to rank Number One is insatiable. 

Nowhere is this more evident than with the Amateur Athletic Union - known more widely by their abbreviation, AAU. If you ever want to burst your bubble about the state of amateur athletics in the United States, do a little research into AAU basketball. In his hard-hitting book on youth sports, Game On, Tom Farrey includes a fascinating chapter about J-Mychal Reese, an exceptional basketball player who was ranked as the number one overall player in the country . . . among other sixth graders! (Reese is now a freshman at Texas A&M). 

The AAU website proudly includes their top twenty-five power rankings in two divisions for boys, starting with fourth grade teams. These are national rankings. And these rankings are part of the genius of their marketers. In order for these teams to be ranked, they must participate in certain sanctioned tournaments. Thus, the AAU determines where (and how often) these sanctioned tournaments are held - often receiving huge financial incentives from the host site (usually a resort or expensive hotel).   

This has real life impact. This dictates to many families where they will spend their vacations and their discretionary income. After all, who doesn't want their child to be ranked Number One? 

parent, coach, youth sports, megaphone
Parents, do not speak to children through megaphones.
This is yet another example of the way that we have lost our way in sports. Sports were created to be good. They fill a crucial role in culture. Unfortunately, humanity is pretty good at taking things which are good and messing them up. The costly pipe dreams of national championships and division one scholarships lead families on yearly snipe hunts, more often than not finding "success" just beyond their reach. But, there's always next year. 

It is important for Christian families to pull back the curtain and see who the man there really is. Too often, families have allowed dreams of athletic success and dominance to cloud their better judgment in regard to the time they spend with their children. There must be times to simply let children play and stop asking who won, or who is the best. It's awfully difficult to bring our children the message of a suffering servant who "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped" in the midst of our trying to figure out how we can help them take down Number One. 

Adam is the minister of the Alum Creek Church of Christ in Lewis Center, OH where he lives with his wife Mary Beth and their three children: Clark, Clementine, and Cecilia. He is nearing completion of his Doctorate of Ministry at Fuller Seminary. His first love is working with teenagers, and he is trying as hard as possible to keep from growing up. You can find more of his writing at Theological Vacillation and  you can follow him on Twitter @CrasslyYours.

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