This past weekend, professional football player James Harrison, who is not so famous that people who don’t follow football have ever heard of him, posted this picture to instagram. It is a picture of two trophies that his sons received for participating in sports, and which he forced them to return to the school. He forced them to return the trophies because they did not win them, and receiving them would teach his children that life is easy rather than what he is trying to teach them, which is “sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.”
He has over 12K likes on this photo since yesterday, and the comments are full of angry people, cheering him on as he fights “the pussification of America,” or some other such nonsense. Misogynistic, frightened, combative comments aside, there are a few missing details that I think might be important to this story. For instance, did the winners get something different?
I mean, is it just the trophy that made him angry? Do trophies symbolize “winning” to him and, like Wreck-It Ralph on his quest for that gold medal, anyone holding a trophy is a winner in his mind? If they had received certificates of participation, would he have shredded them angrily, humming “Eye of the Tiger” as his office equipment taught his children that participating is for losers? Or would it have been fine, because they were not trophies? Because what if the winners got bigger trophies? Doesn’t that provide the incentive to not be a weak moron that he is looking for?
Look, I don’t think he should have made his kids give the trophies back, regardless of the situation, because I think it sends a bad message to all involved. This could have been a chance for Mr. Harrison to have a good talk with his kids about his feelings on the matter, and to explain that he expects them to work hard and try harder. Instead, he made this a public display and a comment on society, using his children as the messengers. Now his kids, already perhaps in the public sports eye at that school because of their father, are singled out again, and the message is “you other kids are suckers and ‘participants’ and that’s not good enough for us.” And he has also taken away a good piece of the fun.
Getting something for “participating” is not a new thing. From letter jackets, to certificates, to yearbooks, to keychains, people have been getting stuff for being part of the team for pretty much ever. It can be a keepsake and a memento of a fun time had with friends, and it doesn’t have to mark achievement. But we live in the United States of Excessica, where “Go Big or Go Home” isn’t just a way of life, I think it is actually a law in Texas. So this makes me think it has to be about the shape of the object, and not what it represents. Certificates became trophies, trophies became bigger trophies, and now we are mad. Except he and his followers have used these trophies as a symbol to promote this “winner take all” attitude that is at the heart of why our society is actually suffering so much these days.
No one is dying because of how “soft” we have all become. If anything, we are still far too hardened and cruel. The reason people in this country are starving and freezing (despite our abundant national resources) is because we feel, for some bizarre caveman reason, that if you work harder than everyone else, then you deserve it all. Not ‘a teensy bit more,’ but ‘it all.’ If you started the company, of course you should make $1B while everyone else makes $7/hr. You were smarter, faster, better. You won. There is no trophy for participation. 2nd place is the 1st loser. And this is a terrible message to send to our children.
Just showing up to play is worth something. Incentives provided to increase skill and participation are good. Winning is good. Having fun is good. Coming in second is good. Working together is good. Excelling is good. Losing and learning something is good. Making progress, no matter how small, is good. It isn’t “not worth it” if you don’t win. And winning should not, must not, be the only goal. Because not everyone can win. Mr. Harrison’s football club the Steelers have not won a championship in almost a decade. Does that mean that we should disband them? Does that mean that they didn’t have fun, because they didn’t win? I mean, I know winning is their goal, but I hope they don’t all go home at the end of the day depressed and miserable because they didn’t make it to the Super Bowl. But maybe they do. Maybe they constantly feel useless and worthless because they are not winners. I hope not.
There are many extreme scenarios that one could base one’s parenting on, but the truth is that our kids need and deserve a more balanced middle ground.
Scenario 1: “Dammit Billy, you’re not working hard enough! Jimmy beats you every time! He’s faster and stronger! No ice cream for you, ever, until you are better than Jimmy!”
Scenario 2: “Great job everyone! You all worked hard and had fun! Jimmy, here is that candy bar that I promised to the winner. Now, let’s all go out and get some ice cream!”
Scenario 3: “Billy, Jimmy, everyone else, thanks for coming to practice today. The ice cream and candy bars are over on that table over there. Have some whenever you want. Now who wants to throw the ball around? Anyone? No? You just came for the free ice cream? Sounds good to me!”
Both scenarios 1 and 3 are absurd exaggerations, but I feel that, in spirit, scenario 1 is not all that far off from what Mr. Harrison is proposing by making a spectacle of his children’s participation trophies. If you feel that your children do not deserve recognition for showing up every day and doing their best, then fine. Please emotionally scar them in private and/or speak to the school or the coach about it if you are that upset. But just know that games can be played for other reasons than winning. Team-building, sportsmanship, social skills, and general fitness can be fine reasons to play a team sport, and getting something at the end that says you were there isn’t necessarily a bad thing.