With a single Instagram post, NFL veteran James Harrison has sparked the debate over participation trophies into a full-fledged firestorm.
“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies!” the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker huffed last week about trophies brought home by his 6- and 8-year-old sons.“While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do, and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy.…
“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.”
Some on social media branded him a bully. Many more, however, called him “courageous,” a “hero” and “Father of the Year.”
Conservative commentators lionized him, while Internet wags suggested he run for president or have his own reality show.
In Kansas City, Kan., B.J. and Kandy Johnson passionately disagreed over Harrison’s parenting.
“That’s the way I’d want to raise our kids,” said B.J., a 24-year-old marketing executive who is proud of how hard he worked to put himself through college.
Kandy, a 26-year-old graduate student in education, shook her head.
“You’d take a trophy from our young child?” she said. “Lord help ya. You’d have to go through me first.”
B.J.: “Life doesn’t just give you things for doing nothing. That’s a bad lesson.”
Kandy: “Well what lesson do you think you’re teaching when you take a trophy away from a 6-year-old child? That you’re a jerk? That she shouldn’t be involved in anything? That winning is the only thing that matters? We’re going to have to talk about this.”
Plenty of others are talking, too. Veteran anchorman Jim Vance of Washington, D.C.’s NBC affiliate said on the air that giving a trophy to a kid who had not earned it was “child abuse.”
“If a parent’s responsibility is to teach a kid how to deal with the real world, then that is child abuse, because that’s not the real world,” he said.
That’s harsh, said Mick Murphy, 72, the general manager for Olathe Youth Baseball, who has given out many participation trophies in his 30 years of coaching. “I can’t agree with that at all. He’s probably wanting to take that statement back.”
And Harrison? “What he did in giving the trophies back, I don’t think that was necessary,” Murphy said.
Sure, older kids should have to earn their trophies. “But with kids at the age he’s talking about — 4, 5, 6 and 7 and 8 — I see nothing wrong with a participation trophy or medal. The kids are pleased by them, and I know by my kids that they kept those trophies and were really proud of them. I see no problem with them even though I’m an old-school guy.”
Murphy said too many coaches and parents are getting too serious about youth sports way too early.
“We’re getting away from a lot of the kids who just want to play ball and have fun,” he said. “That’s all we’re trying to do.”
Heather Hare, an Independence piano teacher, gives “practice achievement” trophies to her students after their yearly recital.
“I use them as a motivator, because it’s not always fun to sit there and practice,” she said. “It’s a reward for their effort. They’ve achieved this goal of learning this difficult piece, and playing it in front of people.”
She understands where the two-time Super Bowl champion is coming from, though.
“I have an 8-year-old son, and he plays baseball,” she said. “When he was younger they gave away participation medals. He enjoyed that. It was a memory for him. But they didn’t keep score then. This year they are keeping score, and they didn’t give participation medals. … I think he can understand that at this level he’s got to work hard to earn a trophy.”
Callom Jones, a personal financial specialist from Overland Park who has two grown children, believes that good-job trinkets are the non-merit badges of an overly coddled generation.
“Good for him for being willing to stand up and go against the tide for what he believes in,” he said of Harrison. “His kids will be better for it.”
While participation ribbons have been given out for as long as anyone can remember at county fairs, the everyone-gets-a-trophy movement started in earnest after World War II, wrote sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman in “Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.”
Just as the self-esteem movement rose in California, urging rewards to acknowledge effort and raise self-worth, the for-profit world began to take over organized competitions from public schools and community groups. As a result, she wrote, trophy and sports shops profited by sponsoring all sorts of competitions — biddy basketball, dance, chess and math — and selling the trophies, medals and certificates to go with them.
“I think (taking the trophies back) is a bit extreme,” he said. “The kids are able to understand that they didn’t do anything to win the award.”
On the other hand, he said, we’ve gone overboard with meaningless trophies.
“Sports parents watch over this like a hawk,” he said. “They say, ‘even if my kid didn’t win a league championship, at least they can put on their resume that they got a trophy for most improved.’ Well … that’s how some parents think. But to just give every kid a trophy because they tried hard really dilutes the impact of all the other trophies. The kids know this. When (they) go off to college these trophies end up in a cardboard box in the garage.”
ESPN commentator Mike Greenberg lent support to participation trophies in a Facebook post.
“If the concern is that the trophies are rendered meaningless, I might argue that what they mean was always in the eye of the beholder anyway,” he wrote. “For some kids they may be very important, for others not so. I think the point here is we want to see more kids getting involved in sports, not less, and if some sort of recognition makes some of them more inclined then my feeling is the trophies are probably doing more good than harm.”
Andrew Jacobs, a longtime sports psychologist in Kansas City, said there’s nothing wrong with giving a trophy to a young child in kindergarten or first grade.
“That can give them motivation,” he said.
But older kids?
“If you come in last place and get a trophy, then what are you learning?” he said. “It’s teaching you it’s OK to come in last place.”
Besides, he said, trophies are not the point of youth sports.
“We’re focusing so much on giving kids materialistic rewards that we’re not spending enough time on the real life lessons you learn from sports: success and failure, making choices, teamwork. The whole purpose of youth sports should be to play and have fun. It should be about the experience. That’s the real trophy.”