If stupid arguments were outlawed, then nobody would ever talk about sports, and we don't want that to happen because then we'd have to think about our actual problems. Still, this MVP race talk is far more annoying than the typical pointless sports discussion. For one thing, few fans actually care. Sure, people chant "MVP" whenever a worthy candidate plays an outstanding game, but that's only because "we think you're a great player who wears our favorite uniform" doesn't have the same lilt. We all remember the great playoff games, and most of us can recite the last 30 years of NBA champions from memory with reasonable accuracy. I know that Michael Jordan won six titles with the Bulls, but I'd have to look up how many MVP trophies he won. Three? Four? Five? Two, God forbid?
Sportswriters and pundits, on the other hand, are treating the MVP race with the gravitas of a presidential election. That's because they make up the Electoral College. When they're debating who's going to win the award, they're not really talking about who they think the best player is; they're talking about whom they should pick as the best player. It's the ultimate circle-jerk of sports-guy self-regard. Sportswriters can't affect the outcome of the games—only David Stern can do that—but the MVP race is theirs to decide, and it's the most thrilling part of their season. "In the 23 years I've been an MVP voter," writes Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News, "there never has been a more difficult choice than that faced by this year's selection panel." Fascinating, but I'd prefer to read about a basketball game.
All of this blather would probably be less irksome if it were confined to the end of the season. But NBA.com, among many, many others, has been updating the "Race to the MVP" every week, all season long. (Your Week 1 "leader": Tracy McGrady.) ESPN.com spent all season ranking the NBA's Top 50 rookies, about 10 of whom have ever seen significant playing time. It's not just pro basketball that's become the Golden Globes with cheerleaders and T-shirt cannons. This is the year that our national obsession with pointless sports rankings reached its absurd zenith. On television, Fox ranks the "50 Best Damn Sports Blowups" and ESPN has sunk so far as to rank the "greatest highlight." The Web is loaded down with Heisman watch lists, draft rankings, and power polls. If you look around, you can find the "Ten Phoniest Baseball Injuries," America's "Top Sports Cities," "Most Desperate Sports Cities," and "Most Fan-Friendly Franchises." The day the 2008 NFL schedule came out, ESPN.com listed the "top 40 games," including the Sept. 21 Texans-Titans match-up. "Matt Schaub, Albert Haynesworth square off," was the reasoning.
The "power rankings" phenomenon isn't new, but the Web has put it into hyperdrive. The Internet demands frequently updated content, and lists and rankings are incredibly easy to put together and require no original thought. There's no need to come up with a new idea every week: Just shuffle a few teams or players around, write a one-sentence caption, and you're ready to publish. Maybe people really care about this stuff, and sports sites are simply fulfilling our desire to assign rankings to "Baseball's Top 20 Young Pitchers." I'd prefer to think we're getting our sports fix from these columns because nobody bothers to writes about anything else.
This is all but a symptom of our rank-happy world. We're determined to manufacture competitions between things even if they don't exist. 21 "beat" Leatherheads at the box office to become the "No. 1 movie," and then they both "lost" to a remake of Prom Night. Meanwhile, the richest of the rich NBA stars, who smoke cigars rolled with our hard-earned money in fraternal ignorance of our opinions, "compete" for the NBA trophy. It's a shameful waste in which we're all complicit. Besides, everyone knows that Amare Stoudemire has got next year's MVP trophy in the bag.
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