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Does it really matter who was the greatest commander of the StarshipEnterprise ?

I could have predicted this one. The Bowl Championship Series was supposed to produce an undisputed top team in college football, and while Tennessee seemed to be the winner, critics are already saying this new system is flawed.

They think it should be expanded into several playoff games among the leading contenders.

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As my old high school coach used to say, everybody take a knee and listen up: It's time to stop this fixation on ratings, rankings, and choosing No. 1.

Sports is just the tip of the iceberg.

It's impossible to calculate how much time is being wasted every day on some new effort to decide who or what is The Best in every category of life. The trend is most intense at the end of each year, as TV and newspapers examine the previous 12 months in order to bestow recognition for best political scandal, best celebrity career revival, best new musical sound, and well, you get the idea. Breaking this national habit won't be easy.

We live in a culture that is delighted by outrageous behavior, and surrounded by media that believes feelings are more compelling than facts. The result is a social climate that thrives on controversy. Why pretend to be open minded when it's easier (and much more entertaining) to classify the whole world in terms of winners and losers, champs and chumps, best and worst?

I'll admit there are times when this approach is helpful. The ongoing debate about whether Mac or Windows is the best operating system can help anyone who uses a personal computer. But too often, the intense arguments of everyday life focus on useless trivia. Does it really matter if William Shatner or Patrick Stewart was the greatest commander of the Starship Enterprise?

Last month, I visited the British Columbia Museum in Victoria, and saw a wonderful Da Vinci exhibit. Leonardo was fascinated by the details of nature. He spent hours studying light and shadow, and the properties of flowing water. Staring at a gurgling creek sounds dull, but we should all be grateful he wasn't distracted from his studies by passing town criers yelling, "Hear ye! Rate the explorers! Could Columbus clobber Magellan, or does Balboa beat them all? Tell us what you think!"

I'm trying to follow Leonardo's example of forming my opinions slowly, after periods of quiet observation. And I support the plurality of excellence. Why worry about which college team is best? Tennessee went undefeated, but so did Tulane, and only one loss blemished Arizona, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Give them all a big cheer, and move on. The season is over. As Leonardo might say, it's all water under the bridge.

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Jeffrey Shaffer is a Monitor humor columnist who writes from Portland, Ore.

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