Reflections on James Harrison’s Participation Trophies

The biggest Steelers “news” story to break over the weekend had nothing to do with the Steelers preseason loss to the Jaguars or with any developments at St. Vincents, but rather with the fact that James Harrison was ordering his sons to return their participation trophies.

  • Perhaps that is a sign of the times of just how saturated NFL football coverage has become. Who knows?

Either way James Harrison’s decision has sparked a lot of debate in Steelers Nation, and a fair amount of reflection on the part of yours truly.

Despite anchoring a solid blue block on the electoral map, Pittsburgh is a city with a blue collar, dare we say “conservative” reputation where James Harrison’s decision is drawing a lot of praise. Long time Pittsburgh broadcast and print journalist John Steigerwald, known for his gruff demeanor, old school values and bluntly accurate analysis unsurprisingly wasted little time praising James Harrison.

This is hardly surprising. In his book Just Watch the Game (which is excellent) Steigerwald decries the decline of pickup sports among today’s youth and the “Every kid gets a trophy” mentality that has invaded organized youth sports.

  • It is important to keep such sentiments in their proper context.

The motif of “Things were never as good as they were in the good old days” is as old as Western Civilization itself. You can literarily find such sentiments in Greek Mythology. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have merit.

The aim of the way children are educated and socialized must be to prepare youth for the real world. And the real world can be brutal. And that reality comes with an inconvenient truth: A lot of social practices fail to prepare the kids for the real world.

Examples of educators lowering standards in response to achievement gaps are legion. But lest anyone be tempted to view this through the left-right prism of contemporary culture wars, consider how the Boy Scouts of America have progressively made it easier to advance in rank over the last few decades and you can see that the problem spans the spectrum.

While standard should not remain carved in stone as times change, constant softening disserves youth – unlike high school Algebra, job searches don’t award partial salary for “showing your work.” Agree or disagree with the practice, at the end of the day the “Every kids gets a trophy” practice is at least partially a symptom of a larger more complicated problem.

But does that mean the practice has no value?

Consider the thoughts of Pittsburgh-based blogger Terry Fletcher:

Fletcher is on to something. Steigerwald’s right when he says that there are a lot fewer kids playing pickup sports today than when he was a kid. But part of the reason for that is that kids have so many more entertainment options than they did in his time.

  • The NFL didn’t have its 60 Minutes of Play program in earlier generations because they didn’t need one.

Sadly, today’s teenagers generally prefer to playing Madden ’16 on the X-Box or PlayStation than playing the real pigskin. Considering that, if awarding participation trophies does actually motivate youth to participate in athletics, then perhaps it’s not such a bad thing.

The issue goes beyond the simple importance of physical fitness. Doug Brown, who coached my high school’s open gym wrestling clinics, confided in my shortly before I graduated, “At the end of the day winning and losing wrestling matches is very unimportant. The value comes in what you learn by going out there and giving it your all to win.”

  • Full disclosure. I never got participation trophies growing up.

That’s because I never participated in organized sports until I wrestled in high school. But I was a son of parents who probably would have agreed with the participation trophy philosophy. Indeed, going into my Junior year (as a Generation Xer, my high school only had 10-12th – somehow the concept of Jr. High became “bad” after I got though it) my mom didn’t understand it when I told her I’d probably wrestle on J.V. again. She didn’t think it was fair.

As it turns out, one of the guys who would have been the varsity starter at 130 lbs. quit and another didn’t feel like losing the weight. At the end of the year, I lettered in wrestling for holding down the starting spot at 130 – and make no mistake, on Dave Moquin’s team you earned your letter by starting ½ the varsity matches to get a letter.

  • A year later I not only lettered again, but earned my first and only trophy for Most Improved Wrestler.

I guess that sums up my take on the controversy over James Harrison and his kid’s trophies: There’s nothing wrong with giving them out to younger kids to give them an incentive to be the best they can be. But by the time high school rolls around the practice should stop.

With that said, I will also say I respect the right of James Harrison, or any other parent, to make the decision he made to teach his kids the value of both effort and achievement.

My folks wouldn’t have taken the same approach because they had other ways of instilling those same values. The important thing is that, at the end of the day, those are the lessons that kids learn.

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