Recently I’ve found myself listening to sports talk radio on the way to work. While it’s obvious that my life would be instantly improved by stopping that, it’s a habit I fell into looking for off-season Seahawks news and now I can’t turn away. What fascinates me most about the medium is how they deal with certain topics.

Take LeBron James. I’m not a basketball expert by any means – I lost interest when the Sonics were stolen away from Seattle – but I have figured out that James is a rather good basketball player. In fact it’s pretty obvious that he’s one of the best players of all time. The open question though is if he is the best player to ever play. While that is a somewhat interesting topic for debate, the issue is that it has become the only one that people want to discuss.

What makes this such a bad thing is that this particular debate has different parameters. When looking at a player, you might focus on their strengths and weaknesses, what they do well and what they can improve. When you’re trying to decide if they’re the best player ever, things shift. It’s not enough to be good or even very good. It’s to be assumed that you have amazing skills or you wouldn’t be in the conversation to begin with. The question then becomes where you are weak. While that’s not a bad conversation to have at times, the constant pursuit of this means that people rarely talk about his good points. The non-stop questions are about his weaknesses, but instead of that just explaining why he might not be as good as Jordan, it becomes part of a devaluing. This is bad for two reasons. The first is that – as a structural issue – many teams can get obsessed over thinking about how their best players could perhaps do a little more, rather than reducing the amount of damage that the worst ones do. It’s a common theme for bad baseball organizations to focus on what their stars can’t do and use that as a reason to trade them away, rather than noticing what they bring and revolving strategy around that. While that can affect games, what might be even worse is how the fans react. When you’re focusing on comparing, you don’t ever get a chance to just relax and enjoy the player. One of the best players ever is on the field now, and people spend their time mocking instead of enjoying. It’s a weird phenomenon.

Obviously, this isn’t just something that sports fans do. Whenever a great show happens, there’s an immediate rush to judge it and to figure out where it belongs in comparison to other concerts. Some of that is just fun. Was Magnaball better than The Clifford Ball? It’s hard to directly compare a concert that mainly revolves around some peak jams to one that was Phish trying to create great standalone versions of their songs. It’s the difficulty of the process that makes things interesting; the debate back and forth shows what various fans values in a concert and can lead to intriguing arguments about what makes a show great. Is it more important to have a peak experience while you’re there or music that can be replayed over years and still be fresh? How important is song selection versus jams? How much of a factor is something like Ben and Jerry singing a line of Brother or acrobats performing in “Tweezer” instead of having the giant lit up Magnaball Drive In screen to stare at during the show. If done right, this debate is less about an objective answer and more about philosophical issues. That’s never a bad thing.

Where it goes wrong though is the Jordan/James debates. When Phish left the stage on July 31, 2013, there were already fans who wanted to argue if the Tahoe “Tweezer” was the best jam since Phish returned or if it was the best version of the song. That immediately led to a polarization of sorts. Those who liked it but didn’t think it was the most incredible performance ever became at odds with those who listened to nothing but it for a month afterward. As frequently happens in such situations, opinions stratified. When people are calling something the best ever, the response frequently is not to say, “Well actually there might be two or three better performances,” but to go to the other extreme. Not everything is going to be the best (or even top 10) experience. There’s nothing wrong with something being very good even if there are other similar things that are better. If you like rating, rate away. Just try not to get so focused in only the best of the best to the point where you can’t enjoy the very good.


David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He now tweets and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

His book This Has All Been Wonderful is available on Amazon, the Kindle Store, and his Create Space store.