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The Debate on Participation Trophies: A Critical Perspective

LB James Harrison doesn't want his kids with trophies they "didn't earn."

Pittsburgh Steelers LB James Harrison sparked a national conversation about the usefulness of participation trophies in modern society. Do they serve a positive purpose?

Pittsburgh Steelers LB James Harrison sparked a national conversation about the usefulness of participation trophies in modern society. Do they serve a positive purpose?

All James Harrison did was throw away his kids’ participation trophies. He also sparked a national conversation about the point of the practice, and whether – if anything – they served any purpose in a society fighting against the so-called “wussification” of Americana.

As the story goes, the Pittsburgh Steelers LB was fairly perturbed when he saw his two sons bringing home participation trophies – particularly, their “2015 Best of the Batch Next Level Athletics Student-Athlete Awards.” While saying he loved and supported his sons, Harrison was having none of awards they did not earn. He posted to Instagram the following, vowing to return the trophies as a lesson for his kids:

As a result, many have weighed in on the usefulness – or lack thereof – of participation trophies, especially for youth. And many have been in agreement with Harrison’s actions, citing a rallying cry against a culture of entitlement that has apparently plagued today’s society. Frankly, so did I – I mean, who would really want to perpetuate a culture of entitlement, anyway? I mean, seriously – in that sense, who could possibly argue FOR participation awards?

Well … allow me to give it the ol’ College Try.

I think it’s safe to say that no one in a society that increasingly shuns the coddled, entitled brats of the world thinks that “participation trophies” – in its purest form – is a good idea. After all, why would you reward anyone just for showing up? In an age where meritocracy is meant to rule, it’s the ultimate slap in the face for those who hold the belief that only the winners should be given their earned accolades.

Don’t get me wrong – I agree with that principle whole-heartedly, at least, to a certain extent. No red-blooded, meritocratic member of society wants to be handed something they didn’t earn through good, ol’ fashioned hard work. And, hey – in a perfect world, as “Chronicles of Riddick” says: “You keep what you kill.”

And, when it comes to the idea of giving “participation trophies” to kids on teams that either don’t bother trying to win, or simply aren’t good enough to win, I get it. You don’t want to give them a false sense of entitlement – that simply being present warrants sunshine, rainbows and unicorns. Because, we don’t want a generation of privileged d-bags that want the world handed to them on a silver platter.

We also don’t want a generation of people totally unprepared for the unrelenting physical, psychological and emotional beatdown that is the real world. There are certainly a plethora of examples everyone can point to that will tell you how cruel and unfair the world at large can be – most of the time, for no other reason than dumb luck and circumstance.

But, at the end of the day, what are we talking about? Beating people down in preparation for the harsh realities of the real world certainly sounds like a decent – even a necessary – lesson that everyone must learn at a younger age. But we have to be careful of a very real, and very tricky, side effect from the “cruel-world” mentality – an equally fallacious belief that it is futile to fight against a society that is systematically designed to keep you down. It could leave us with a generation of jaded nihilists, sour on the idea of pure meritocracy. That sounds just as unproductive as a generation of entitlement.

Or, in other words, I kind of like what Brandy Zadrozny of The Daily Beast says about the possible detrimental effect of losing as a lesson:

Sending him home empty-handed at the end of a hard-fought season won’t help him learn the lesson of losing, it will teach him early that there’s no value in the attempt. As a grown-up, in the real world, I think there’s something to that old Woody Allen line about success being 80 percent showing up.

All that aside, I think there isn’t really a right answer – after all, everything is subjective. Again, I believe that people should learn, as soon as possible, that you should strive to earn everything you get.

Furthermore, just looking at James Harrison’s actions, I think it’s actually fine that he wants to throw away his kids’ participation trophies. However, he should also be wise as to not, at the same time, insult his kids’ intelligence.



I mean that, ultimately, the idea of participation trophies have to be put into some context. They can’t be seen purely as “rewards for showing up” – because, honestly, that’s NOT what they are supposed to be. Contrary to popular belief, participation trophies aren’t necessarily the monuments of entitlement many make them out to be – trinkets that say you deserve a cookie for losing, or for not trying.

They are meant to be recognition that you accomplished something.

And, whether or not you’re happy with how well you accomplished that something is purely your prerogative. If it makes you feel good, to the point where you want to try it again, that’s great. If, on the other hand, you feel like you were majorly patronized by the thought of giving you a participation award … that’s great, too! Perhaps it will push you to try harder, so as not to be ingratiated with such a backhanded “reward” again.

In that sense, I actually applaud Harrison – in his own way, he gave participation awards his own personal context to his children: that they shouldn’t be taken so seriously, because they don’t really mean much if they aren’t truly earned.

Case in point, allow me to tell you a story. This is personal, so give me a little leeway, here:

A couple weeks ago, I participated in my first-ever 5K, at the Color Run in Sacramento. (You want proof? Check out this video at 90 seconds in.) To be fair, it was a fun run, so it wasn’t necessarily competitive. Lucky for me – I have never been the most athletic person. I knew, full well, that I wasn’t going to be capable of running the entire 3.3 miles.

And, ultimately, I didn’t – I watched as many runners methodically passed me, while I – along with a friend who vowed to stay with me the entire time – interspersed walking and running the entire race. Despite everything, it was still difficult, and I pushed myself to run as much as I could. But, given the circumstance, I never thought I would have ever attempted a 5K – but there I was, actually doing it.

At the finish line, I was greeted by cheers of the crowd, and – lo and behold – a participation medal. It was something that everyone got, and I was well aware of this. In that context, I realized that getting one wasn’t really that big of a deal.

Just don't tell us those things were totally meaningless, though.

Just don’t tell us those things were totally meaningless, though.

Nonetheless, it still made me feel good in getting one. To me, it was something that I ended up earning, for doing something that I don’t think I ever would have imagined myself doing. Did it actually mean anything in the end – let alone a reward for simply showing up? Not really. But it still undoubtedly made me feel like I accomplished something. I didn’t NOT try – and, at the end of the day, it wasn’t even a competitive run – so, in that context, I appreciated the participation medal.

And, I guess, ultimately, that’s the point. If it makes you feel happy, despite knowing it doesn’t mean much in the scheme of things, what’s the real harm?

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