Any Worthwhile Player Ranking Will Make You So Mad
1:50 PM EST on December 14, 2022
My froth-brained Defector colleagues and I spent a chunk of the late morning gawking at a pair of sports-player-ranking blogs on The Ringer. One of them ranks, with wild prestige formatting, the top 100 players in the NBA, according to some occult set of criteria wherein being "straight up, without equivocation, the best player on the planet" is applied straight-facedly to the guy ranked third. The other, a recurring weekly project, ranks NFL quarterbacks somehow evidently based neither on present performance nor on career-long body of work nor as an assessment of individual talent. Both of these blogs are ludicrous; I love and despise them.
The player-ranking blog is the silliest type of sports blog, or anyway, if I resist the blogger impulse toward hierarchical ranking, it is a very silly type of sports blog. Who is it for? What does one hope to get out of it? As someone who has clicked on, conservatively, every inflammatory ranking of anything published anywhere on the internet in the past decade—and has even created an armload of them, with varying levels of insincerity—I'm perhaps overfamiliar with the very weird mental configuration a reader adopts before reading one of these. If your favorite player is ranked where you yourself would put them, then that is a powerful validation for them and for your opinion of them and for your own expertise on the subject (See??? Sports Trough dot Borg agrees with me! That puts the matter beyond dispute!); but if your favorite player is ranked anywhere lower than that, then the ranker is a shit-for-brains moron who doesn't even watch the sport. At its best, then, the ranking is redundant to what's inside your head; in all other scenarios it is totally invalid. Its only path to legitimacy is to reproduce, perfectly, your preexisting opinions.
Of course that's impossible, or impossible across any significant number of readers. So a ranking kind of can't help but be a troll, particularly when made by anybody familiar with how any of this works. The more scientific and authoritative its pose, the bigger the troll: Whatever else might be revealed by deep, good-faith interrogation of something as complex and human as a professional team sport, the first and most obvious thing that interrogation would have to uncover is the fundamental absurdity of making a claim like Donovan Mitchell is precisely the 17th-best player in the NBA, discernibly superior to the 18th-best (Damian Lillard) and inferior to the 16th-best (Jimmy Butler).
All that sophisticated analysis can add to the ranking is juice to how much it pisses you off, by resisting any clement impulse you have toward reading it as humble opinion. Now it is not saying Here is what I think; now it is saying You are wrong. It's the equivalent of Andy Kaufman playing up his Yankee sophistication and arrogance so the Deep South wrestling fans would get an extra thrill out of the possibility of seeing him body-slammed into hell.
To illustrate the truth of this to yourself, try to imagine somewhere out there in the world some Philadelphia 76ers fan reading The Ringer's ranking of the NBA's top 100 players and being like, "Ah man, you know, I'd never considered that Jayson Tatum was better than Joel Embiid until I saw this, but I can't argue with it." That has never happened! You will sooner stumble across a three-headed elephant than find this 76ers fan.
At its closest pass to rhetorical success, the player ranking might help you to discover or clarify your own latent opinions on a subject by forcing you to encounter your own rage. Before today, had I given much thought to how I feel about the idea that precisely four NBA players are comprehensively better than Kevin Durant? Reader, I had not! But now I know that I find that idea offensively ridiculous, or ridiculously offensive.
And really, all of this is fine! Many fine blogs are little more than artful trolls, with or without an implicit friendly wink. Sometimes that is the fun of them, for blogger and reader alike: an unspoken spontaneous kayfabe you can opt into or not. An unranked list of young NBA players who are butt most definitely is a troll. An unexplained ranked list of popsicle flavors is a troll. Possibly this blog itself, on some level, is a troll! I will sort that out later, after it has been published, when I get a sense of how badly it pisses you off.