Participation Trophies Mean Nothing

It’s been years since I got a Little League trophy.

And being the below-average player I was, the only reason I got it is that at our season-ending team dinner, the coach gave a trophy to everyone.

He even threw in some complimentary words about my contributions, which—to be honest—were scant. It was not a good year for me on the diamond.

I thought of that trophy recently when I saw a story claiming  that participation trophies are a good idea and bolstered the writer’s self-esteem.

In further researching this topic, I came across a bevy of such stories. They included this two-year-old item about Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison.

Harrison touched off a social media storm when he announced on Instagram that he would be sending back the trophies his six- and eight-year-old sons received “until they earn a real trophy.”

Meaningless Awards

Sports Participation TrophiesWhile the majority of parents applauded Harrison, it appears the sentiment hasn’t penetrated the corridors of those running youth leagues across the country.

Judging by occasional remarks I’ve heard from various states, participation trophies are still all the rage, along with a “we don’t keep score” ethic.

The funniest thing about that is who can tell you the score of supposedly non-scoring games: all the kids who are playing. The very ones who supposedly will have their tender feelings bruised if someone acknowledges there was a winner—and a loser.

The thing about a trophy is it is supposed to acknowledge something special. Regardless of whether it’s a game, an academic achievement, or another endeavor, it signifies accomplishment.

If everyone gets a trophy, then no one gets a trophy worth having. To draw a parallel, I have told a number of inexperienced writers, “You have to be sparing in your use of italics or exclamation points. If everything’s important, then nothing’s important.”

An Overreaction

Now, I’m not against instructional leagues where the emphasis is more on teaching youngsters how to play the game than who wins.

And, I’ve seen out-of-control parents bellow at umpires and act as if their child’s future professional career is on the line because of a bad call.

But in trying to compensate for the irrational and over-the-top parents who place a premium on winning and forget about sportsmanship, I think we have overreacted.

This “everyone is special” idea has penetrated into other quarters of society, as exemplified by graduations for every level of kid-dom. Even for preschoolers.

What did the little tykes do to earn their diploma? Drink all their juice box without spilling it on their shirt? Learn that there are A-B-C’s, even if they can’t line them up yet? Or just act really nice?

Heartless People

The Road to CharacterSomewhere right now, someone is likely screaming that I’m a heartless, unfeeling curmudgeon.

I would suggest that those who want to treat everyone as special are the unkind ones. As David Brooks so aptly points out in The Road to Character, today’s self-esteem-oriented parents are raising a generation of self-centered kids who go on to become self-centered adults.

A number of commentators—The Washington Post’s George Will among them—have commented about all the “snowflakes” on college campuses.

Namely, students who are catastrophically injured by the very idea that someone might disagree with them. And demand “safe zones” where they can be protected from intellectual debate or opposing ideas.

Where do you think those snowflakes came from? It started with participation trophies and A’s for everyone. All that is doing is failing to prepare young people for the real world.

The Consequences of Mindless Teaching

Whether the rash of post-Christmas violence at shopping malls nationwide, increasing incidents of air rage, or other acts of irrational behavior, our society appears to have become unhinged.

While I’m sure the causes and effects will be debated for years to come, I think the loss of simple words like “sin” and “blame” are behind the gradual drift towards an anything-goes outlook. It’s one that excuses personal misdeeds under the guise of tolerance or some other supposedly enlightened approach.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Some of my musings originate with New York Times syndicated columnist and Yale professor David Brooks’ insightful book, The Road to Character.

It ought to be required reading for college students and other young people raised to believe the world revolves around them.

“I’m Special”

Early in his response to the culture of the “Big Me,” Brooks talks about how we have gradually seen a shift over the last several decades from a culture of self-effacement to one of self-promotion.

One indicator of this subtle trend is how, of the 23 men and women who served in President Dwight Eisenhower’s cabinet, only one member published a memoir afterward.

Three decades later, 12 of the 30 members of Ronald Reagan’s cabinet did—almost all of them self-advertising.

Nor is this restricted to presidential advisors. Brooks points to the Gallup Organization asking high school seniors in 1950 if they considered themselves to be a very important person. Only 12 percent said yes. But when Gallup posed the same question 55 years later, 80 percent answered in the affirmative.

Ironically, at a high school reunion around the same time, an old classmate who was teaching high school English commented to me about her students: “They can’t read, write or spell, but they have great self-esteem.”

Serious Consequences

This embrace of the Big Me has had serious consequences.This embrace of the Big Me has had serious consequences. Brooks traces how American society has spent so much time encouraging people to have a great career that we have been rendered inarticulate in cultivating an inner life.

The competition to succeed becomes all-consuming and encourages us to live by a utilitarian outlook aimed at satisfying our desires while losing sight of the moral stakes involved in everyday decisions, he says.

“We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success,” Brooks writes, “but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.”

The ultimate outcome of the extreme emphasis on professional skills while ignoring the depth of the inner life that fosters integrity: “You do not have a strategy to build character, and without that, not only your inner life but also your external life will eventually fall to pieces.”

Way to Sanity

One of the ways back to sanity that Brooks outlines is recovering the use of words like “sin,” which connote ideas of right and wrong, of correct and incorrect behavior.

As the evidence of irrational and boundary-less behavior grows stronger, we need more voices like Brooks’ crying out in the wilderness.

When we lived in Colorado three decades ago, a friend talked about the “values clarification” courses in high school that supposedly were teaching critical thinking, when at the heart of such classes lay the idea that there is no right or wrong.

Today, we see the outcome—millions acting as if there is no right or wrong. It is a dreadful consequence and we need to start counteracting it at the level that is most important: the grassroots.