trophies

Albert Burneko wrote a piece that posted on Deadspin yesterday, and it was wonderful. Burneko railed against the notion, popular almost to the point of unanimity these days, that the participation trophy – as opposed to that icon of American greatness, the winner’s trophy – is a scourge.

Like gluten-free food and the selfie stick, the youth participation trophy has become a symbol of all that is wrong with our culture. Of course America is losing its position of dominance on the global stage. We hand out trophies to boost self-esteem rather than to reward excellence, for God’s sake. It’s one more mincing step on the way to our fragile, crybaby, self-absorbed doom.

There are lot of problems with this theory. The most obvious is the desire to place adult expectations on an 8-year-old.

As Burneko eloquently suggested, we have plenty of time to sort the winners from the losers. When we are grown up, when we are professional, the rewards will almost all be merit-based, and that’s appropriate (though let’s face it, we can all get a little obsessive about “winning”). But why lean down and remind a kid he’s not good at something? It’s probably a premature assessment, because people develop at different rates, and he might just believe you.

The other fallacy of the winner’s trophy is that it confuses victory with effort. I’ve played Little League baseball and I’ve covered the NFL, with a lot of levels in between, and it’s obvious that every championship team includes a player or two (or more) who are disgruntled about playing time or not entirely committed to the team. And there are teenagers and college athletes and pros everywhere who work hard and play their asses off but never win the big one.

Fun fact: Dick Butkus never played in a playoff game. Do you admire him less?

Cal Ripken was a fantastic baseball player. But by the time he retired in 2001, his stature exceeded his numbers – especially when you consider that he didn’t play in a World Series over his final 18 seasons. Ripken became not just an All-Star but a beloved figure because of the particular record he broke: his 2,632 consecutive games played. Ripken could field one of the toughest positions and hit with power, but most of all he showed up. Did his job. Every freakin’ day. It was a trait we could both admire and relate to, and why not let kids know that sometimes showing up is half the battle?

Mostly, though, my defense of the participation trophy is based on experience. When my middle girl was 5 years old, I coached her co-ed soccer team. This was probably the most advanced age group I could have coached, because I didn’t really know a damn thing about soccer. But hey, they were 5. Roll a ball onto the field, shout when they’re going in the wrong direction, bring orange slices for halftime.

There were two boys on the team who were light-years ahead of the other players. They did 90 percent of the kicking. But my daughter was in the next tier, along with two or three other kids. She was pretty good. She scored a couple goals.

When the season was over, I had to honor my coaching obligations and hand out trophies at the after-season ceremony. All the kids from all the teams were there, and there was a vast, shimmering field of trophies, all the same, all lined up like tiny terracotta soldiers.

I looked each kid in the eye and whispered my thanks, but I thought the whole thing was kind of stupid. Name after name, trophy after trophy. How could the kids derive any pleasure from this assembly line of affirmation?

My daughter didn’t react much, and I expected the hardware to sit atop her headboard for a while, then gradually make the sad march of obsolescence to bookcase, then closet, then garage. And honestly, it did. But that first night, when I went to kiss her goodnight, my girl was holding her prize. She smiled and said to me, “I just like the way it sounds – trophy.” And she slept right next to it.

Rail all you want about America going soft, but there’s no way you’ll ever convince me that trophy was a bad idea.