When I was 7, my dad gave every player on my tee-ball team a “Player of the Year” certificate. I only remember this because it seemed so out-of-character. My dad was a former Big Ten football player and high school football coach; he coached Little League with a similar level of intensity.
Nor was I raised to believe winning didn’t matter as long as you had fun. I was raised to believe the exact opposite: The only way to have fun was to win. So when I received my POY award, I did so dismissively. If everyone is POY, then none of us are, I thought. (I was a precocious little shit as a kid, if you couldn’t tell.)
More than 20 years later, participation trophies have become more controversial than ever. In fact, there’s perhaps no purer distillation of our current cultural moment than the ongoing debate about participation trophies in youth sports.
In a literal sense, a participation trophy is nothing more than a worthless hunk of molded plastic that you can buy at your local hardware store. At best, it serves as a simple yet fond totem for the camaraderie and friendly competition you shared with your teammates that season.
But for many, it’s the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with our current cultural moment — specifically, the idea that we’re turning our nation’s youth into a bunch of entitled, feeble-minded losers.
Meanwhile, for participation trophy apologists, the animosity they engender is a retrograde tempest in a teapot.
This debate has been raging for years now, but 24-year-old Washington Nationals phenom Bryce Harper breathed new life into it two weeks ago when he told a bunch of adoring Little Leaguers that winning is the only acceptable outcome.
As some dads pointed out, maybe Harper — a baseball prodigy for whom the sport has never been difficult — should recognize that he represents the 0.0001 percent of the population in terms of baseball talent, and can’t really relate to the shame that comes with being the last kid off the bench. Harper, they suggested, might be better off spouting vague platitudes about the importance of teamwork and work ethic, and shutting the hell up about parenting.
He’s hardly, though, the first professional athlete to express such a sentiment. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison earned the respect of the far right in 2015 when he returned his sons’ participation trophies.
Harrison’s teammate, backup running back DeAngelo Williams, did the same thing with his daughter, returning her participation ribbon to her teacher. And the University of Louisville women’s basketball coach, Jeff Walz, delivered a fiery rant last year at a press conference about the scourge of participation trophies. “You finish last, you come home with a trophy. You kidding me?” Walz scolded. “What’s that teaching kids? It’s okay to lose! And unfortunately, it’s our society. It’s what we’re building for.”
Scores of concerned citizens have expressed similar sentiments on social media, letting the world know they would never allow their children to accept a consolation prize.
Their argument: A participation trophy gives a false sense of achievement, one that’s disconnected from performance, and teaches kids they don’t have to work hard (or at all) to be rewarded. Give out enough participation trophies, and you’ll have an entire generation completely lacking in character and toughness and with a grating sense of entitlement. (This is the basis of pretty much every argument made against millennials.)
There’s some legitimacy to this idea. Former Stanford Dean of Freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims says participation trophies (and helicopter parenting, in general) has made young adults ill-equipped to handle the adversity and disappointment they’ll inevitably encounter later in life. And some psychologists say too much positive feedback can give children an unrealistic amount of self-esteem.
But it’s rather extreme to blame these perceived generational differences on a few trophies. It suggests kids don’t know the difference between a trophy that reads “Townsville, USA, Little League — 2017 Season” and one with “CHAMPIONS” engraved on it. And it presumes that naturally competitive kids will lose their competitive streak if you give them a “Participant” ribbon.
Most importantly, it neglects the fact that being part of a team as a kid — regardless of how many wins and losses you have at the end of the season, or how well you played — is an accomplishment in and of itself. Committing yourself to a team, and seeing that commitment through to the end of the season—especially if it’s a losing season—is commendable.
Life humbles everyone eventually, so children might as well enjoy their participation trophies while their innocence is still intact. Or as Deadspin writer and father of two Albert Burneko puts it: “Fuck Winning.” Our cultural obsession with winning — and the accompanying shame of being labeled a loser—has its own set of consequences.
Psychologists say there’s a middle ground: You shouldn’t heap undeserved praise on your children, but you shouldn’t frame every situation as win-lose, either. Instead, you should applaud a child’s effort and impress upon them that the more of it they give, the greater their chances of success, according to psychologist Jonathan Fader. “Kids are smart, and they know that being handed a participation trophy isn’t the same as winning,” he writes.
Whenever I hear someone bemoan participation trophies, I think back to that POY certificate my dad give me and my teammates two decades ago. My dad had mixed feelings about my reaction. He was impressed (and a little taken aback) by my pointing out that the “award” was more or less meaningless, and appreciated my lack of interest in empty praise.
But he was disappointed, too. Yes, he pushed me, but he knew where to draw the line with children who were less competitively inclined—those for whom playing Little League wasn’t a win-or-lose endeavor, but a chance to connect with our families in our small, insular, baseball-obsessed suburb.
The award meant so much to him, in fact, that a framed version of it sits in my childhood bedroom to this day.