NFL quarterbacks fear Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison. So should participation trophies, the ubiquitous trinkets given to children for merely showing up and rounding out the rosters of local sports leagues.
The other day, Harrison learned that his sons had brought a couple of them home and was none too pleased: “I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies!”
He swiftly returned the offending tokens and explained himself on Instagram: “These trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best.”
Harrison can be forgiven for having any touchy-feely sentiment wrung out of him by clawing his way to the top of the most punishing meritocracy in all of sports. He was signed by the Steelers at the outset of his career as an undrafted rookie, got cut multiple times and considered quitting and becoming a truck driver like his dad, until he finally caught on in the NFL, where they don’t honor you for participating.
Most people are still with Harrison, if a Reason-Rupe poll from last year is to be believed. It found that 57 percent of people think only winning players should get trophies, putting a clear majority on the side of the atavistic impulse to reward only victory.
Notwithstanding Harrison’s withering assault — and public opinion — the culture of trophies-for-all in youth sports will endure. The trophy has gone from exceptional reward for excellence, to nice gesture, to practically an entitlement. When a cash-strapped Little League in Oklahoma canceled its participation trophies a couple of years ago, one parent complained, “Thanks little league for failing my son and disappointing him as well.”
Writing in The New York Times, author Ashley Merryman relates that trophy and award sales total roughly $3 billion annually in the United States and Canada. She cites a Southern California branch of the American Youth Soccer Organization that distributes about 3,500 awards per season, with about a third of players getting two awards each. Local branches of the soccer outfit, according to Merryman, spend as much as 12 percent of their budget on trophies.
The popular i9 youth sports league exemplifies the award-happy times. As a newspaper report explained, “To protect the other children’s self esteem, there are no MVPs. Every player is given a sportsmanship award, a participant award and a celebratory icon in their online i9 ‘Trophy Case.’” What, no ESPY Arthur Ashe Courage Awards?
We’re talking about kids, not professional athletes, of course. They aren’t risking life and limb to enter sports glory for evermore by hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup or bringing home the Vince Lombardi Trophy. They are just having a good time and learning a thing or two. They certainly shouldn’t be told the lie that winning is everything, but nor do they need to be festooned with as many medals as Michael Phelps just because they suited up to play a game.
There is such a thing as winning and losing, and excelling and failing. It’s OK for kids to understand that, and in fact, if they don’t, they are going to be shocked by life. There’s no reason to try to hide it under a raft of automatic trophies that will never be as valued as something truly extraordinary or truly earned.
Participation — and effort — should be its own reward. No one gave us trophies when my Little League team scuffled to a pathetic losing season on the dusty neighborhood ballfield. We participated, we got humiliated, and we moved on, having indubitably established what James Harrison said of his sons’ unearned trophies: “Sometimes your best is not enough.”
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.