Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Nobel Hall of Fame

Since U.S. President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, political organizations all over the United States, and to a lesser degree the world, have been abuzz with the news. Much of the conversation in the U.S. has revolved around the question of whether or not Obama 'deserved' to win the award.

It turns out that this is one of those times in life where being a sports fan actually helps you with a non-sports-related life situation: having listened to arguments, rants, and out-and-out denunciations of various sports award winners over the years, I can say with confidence that the people discussing whether or not Obama deserves the Peace Prize are missing the point: being deserving has very little to do with receiving an award.

Consider a less significant award, such as baseball's Cy Young award or college football's Heisman Trophy. One of a number of different scenarios may apply:

- There may be one candidate who achieves general acceptance that he should win the award. In almost every case, this candidate does end up winning the award without controversy. If for some reason this candidate does not win the award, controversy inevitably results.

- There may be two or more candidates seen as equally qualified to win the award. One of these candidates will generally win the award, but if there are only two such candidates, and their support breaks nearly down the center of the population doing the evaluation for the award, the award may be awarded to 'co-winners' for that given period, usually to avoid controversy, which otherwise almost always occurs.

- There may be no candidates seen as obviously qualified to win the award, yet the award must still be given out. Someone will be chosen, for reasons which either may be revealed or may be left to the imagination, and there will inevitably be controversy over which candidate was chosen and why.

Even in the first scenario above, where there's a single candidate that nearly everyone agrees should win the award, it's not a question of that candidate 'deserving' to win (though supporters will often use the word when describing the candidate and the award). To borrow a concept from Bill James (discussing the baseball Hall of Fame), awards exist to honor the individuals thus awarded. To say that someone deserves a specific honor is a very difficult thing, especially given that most awards are pretty vague as to what it is they are honoring. (For example, nearly every annual sports award is given to the 'best' practitioner of a given sport in that year, usually without defining what 'best' is supposed to mean. How can you say someone 'deserves' to be honored as the best player of a given sport when you can't really even say what is meant to say that a given player is the best?)

Given this, I find that getting all worked up over whether or not Obama 'deserves' the Nobel Peace Prize is about as sensible as getting worked up over whether or not Joe Mauer 'deserves' the American League MVP award; whether or not someone wins an award doesn't change what they've done or what their goals are. Johan Santana was no less admired as a starting pitcher for not being awarded the 2005 American League Cy Young award, nor did winning the Peace Prize in 2002 mean that Jimmy Carter's diplomatic work in Haiti was considered more significant than the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt.

Whether or not someone 'deserves' an award is irrelevant. If you agree, celebrate. If you disagree, congratulate the winner and then bitch to your friends. Preferably in private.

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