In (Limited) Defense of “Everybody Gets a Trophy”

Silver: Why participation trophies aren't so bad.

“Everybody gets a trophy”- the view that, in today’s youth sports, kids are coddled to the point where they’re rewarded for nothing- is all of a sudden everywhere in the culture. HBO’s Real Sports ran a segment on the phenomenon a few weeks ago, and then last week Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison publicly announced on Instagram that he had confiscated participation trophies from his own children. One Washington, DC sports anchor even compared participation trophies to child abuse.

My view, as a parent of a pair of sports-playing boys, is that the outrage is misplaced and often ludicrously over-the-top. When it comes to issues facing youth sports and youth today in general, there are much worse calamities than participation trophies.

Leave aside the contradictions of those making the charge: James Harrison, as Deadspin pointed out, is an accused domestic abuser known for aggressive head-hunting on the field, and may have better advised to keep his pulling of the trophies private rather than share it with his 186,000 Instagram followers

That Real Sports segment consisted mostly of laughably animated grandstanding by America’s most smug TV reporter, Bernard Goldberg. As for the child abuse charge, when it comes to sports and abuse, I’m much more bothered by the numerous abusers who have been welcomed back with open arms to the NFL.

Beyond that, “everyone gets a trophy” is nothing new. I think I was in high school the first time I heard someone complain about it, and that was 20 years ago.

I can also say that partipation trophies are an extremely minor part of the youth sports experience. I’ve never once heard a kid say “I can’t wait for this season to be over so I can get my trophy!” They’re an end-of-the-season afterthought, something kids get on the last day that, in all likelihood, goes up on a shelf for the next few years. (My biggest complaint about “Everyone gets a trophy”? As the years pass, you end up with too many damned trophies.)

But I think the biggest thing that critics are missing about this is that there’s a difference between high school sports and, say, tee ball. My kids are 3 and 5. My three-year-old played in an introductory tee ball league last spring in which I’m convinced half the kids had never seen baseball before. When kids are at a pre-K age, playing sports are about a lot of things- learning the rules of the games, getting exercise and staying active, and learning about teamwork- far beyond winning and losing, much less cutthroat competition. You want universal trophies for high schoolers? That I’d object to. Little kids? What’s the problem?

Then there’s the notion that general complaints adults have about “kids today” are numerous, and very contradictory, with the “fat lazy kids” and “helicoptered hyper-active kids” critiques often applied simultaneously. “They just sit and play video games all day!” “They’re overscheduled, with nonstop sports and activities!” “They do everything!” “They do nothing!”

If we don’t want kids to be obese, lazy couch potatoes, why not encourage them to play sports? And once they do, why knock them for accepting a minor token to reward their efforts? Some kids choose not to play at all. Other kids quit the team, or otherwise elect not to participate. Participation isn’t the same thing as winning, but it’s much closer to winning than not playing is.

Things have changed with our sports culture over the years, and with the way coaching works, and for the most part, those changes are for the better. The Bobby Knight style of actually physically assaulting players, for instance, is no longer in favor. Coaches and athletic bodies used to not care about brain injuries, or heat exhaustion, and the prevailing attitude towards injuries was “rub some dirt on it.” It doesn’t work that way anymore, and that’s for the best.

Does all this make kids “soft”? To that I have two rebuttals:  Every generation for as far back as anyone can remember has directly challenged the toughness of the generation directly younger than them. Have you ever spent time with a World War II veteran? Ask them sometime what they thought of the ‘60s generation. And remember the nasty things people said in the ‘90s about Gen X?

Meanwhile, in today’s world, 95 percent of instances of one human denouncing another as “soft” are an example of meaningless, laughable macho posturing that amounts to little besides insulting a man by comparing him to a woman.

Is there a debate about the best ways to reward kids for the things they accomplish on the athletic field? Yes. Are participation trophies a plague on society, a sign of cultural decline, or “child abuse”? Not even close.

Follow @StephenSilver on Twitter.