Below is the video from my segment on ESPN’s Outside the Lines with Bob Ley (and fellow guest Ashley Merryman) in which we discussed participation trophies and the end of civilization as we know it. It’s a funny topic, participation trophies, because first of all, why is it a topic? Seriously, why should anyone care about a piece of tin collecting dust on the mantle when there are wars, crimes and social injustice? Granted, Ms. Merryman pointed out the money involved behind Big Trophy, which may explain why they have a stake in the giving of them, but has little to do with the argument about their effects on society. It also leads me to wonder if a) getting rid of participation trophies would also get rid of American jobs, and b) is Big Trophy hiring lobbyists, because I got this.
To quote myself, because I’m the guy that said it, “Participation trophies are not the shears upon the fabric of our society.” Yet Coach Jeff Walz (his comments were the reason I was invited on the program) would suggest otherwise. He seems to believe that his elite athletes, playing at a highly competitive level, lack heart and hustle, because someone once presented them with a trophy as an acknowledgment of their teamwork. Somebody may have said that they mattered.
Here’s the thing, honestly, I don’t give a crap about participation trophies—give them, don’t give them—I don’t care. But to blame society’s ills upon some perceived notion of entitlement resulting solely from a trinket is ridiculous. Youth sports are about fun and friendship, not lottery picks, and while some may walk away a bit bigger in the britches, kids are smart enough to realize their participation trophy is not the same as the winner’s golden shrine upon which we all must worship.
Bottom line, I don’t want my kids growing up in a world divided between “winners” and “losers.” Want to see what that looks like? It is orange, ill-coiffed, and constantly tweeting while angry. Rather, I want my children to be a part of something bigger than them, to find ways to work together through obstacles and heartache, to achieve great things that would be impossible to obtain alone, and when they are I want to acknowledge that effort, results be damned. It isn’t a lack of competition that is driving a wedge between us, but the idea that a winner is all things and that losing the end of them. Losing is a lesson, one not lost on kids, regardless of the appreciation handed to them.
A participation trophy is a souvenir, not an enabler. It is a nod to the kids on the end of the bench that only played because their parents made them, but played nonetheless, saying: “See, teamwork is a good thing, and you were part of it.” It is not a reward, but the aforementioned acknowledgement that a child’s worth is not scored by scores alone.
If people have issue with children and entitlement, which, they should, then perhaps they could spend more time teaching and less time complaining. Placing the blame for it upon a bit of kindness is scapegoating far too many other shortcomings that would be better addressed by our collective ire.
This really isn’t about participation trophies at all, but the definition, and symbolism thereof. Your symbols may vary.
Also, Bob Ley showed my book on ESPN and you should totally buy it for anyone that believes a child’s potential for empathy is a far greater measure of success than the size of their trophy case. That’s the real winning, and anyone can participate.
Whit Honea is the co-founder of Dads 4 Change and the Social Media Director of Dad 2.0 Summit. Deemed “the activist dad” by UpWorthy (and one of the “funniest dads on Twitter” by Mashable), he is a regular contributor to The Modern Dads Podcast and the author of The Parents’ Phrase Book—a family guide to empathy that you should totally buy.