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Commentary Aug 18, 2015

Participation trophies: Our staff’s reactions to the James Harrison controversy

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison sparked heated debate among millions of parents last week, when he took to Instagram to share his disgust with the trophies given to his two young sons, James and Henry, by a local sports organization.

“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies!” wrote the 37-year-old Super Bowl champion underneath an image of two “Student Athlete” trophies from Next Level Sports. “While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy.

“I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best.”

+READ: Solidarity payments: The missing piece in U.S. youth soccer’s development puzzle?

Obviously, this is just the type of provocative celebrity declaration guaranteed to set the youth sports world aflame with chatter — a local television news anchor in Washington, D.C. even called participation trophies “child abuse” — and’s editorial staff was no exception.

Is North American soccer suffering under a “trophy for nothing” culture? Or are over-caffeinated alpha parents like Harrison the real problem? Here are a few of our choicest observations:

* “I love it and fully support James Harrison. Participation trophies take away the value of actually earning a trophy when you win. Not quite as exciting to get a trophy for winning a title when you have 30 others that you got for just showing up.”

Manhattan-PSG-USYS-trophy-hoist* “Trophies provide a reason to have that end-of-season gathering in the first place. Kids won’t go sit around and have a meal and listen to adults talk at a microphone unless they know there’s something in it for them, which is also why they’re always given out last at banquets. They also keep kids from leaving the club or team. Kids (thus their parents) are customers in American sports, and providing them with something your competitors provide keeps them ‘happy.’”

* “For soccer, I wouldn’t do trophies at all at younger ages, other than for achievement of skills tests. Trophies for top performers, and badges for levels of achievement (think Karate belts) – 10 juggles, 50 juggles, club’s top juggler gets a trophy. Most touches on 60 seconds. Dribbling the cones competitions. Shot placements, or even the crossbar challenge. Hold a soccer tennis tournament: The top three teams get 1st, 2nd, 3rd.”

* “Giving a trophy to someone for participating is a copout by leagues, teams and parents – a ‘customer service’ mentality. I don’t think anyone making the decision to buy and distribute these is in any way thinking they are “earned,” but that they do them to “keep everyone happy.” Their motivations for that are likely complex.

* “Participation trophies help create a sense of entitlement amongst young players. I know this is a big buzzword in the coaching world with the kids these days, and yes, I felt like a grandparent typing that sentence, but I do believe it’s true here. If kids believe they deserve a trophy for everything they do – whether the effort or execution was good or bad – what lesson does that teach them? How does that serve them when they grow up and someone tells them ‘no’ or they have a setback or fail? We should teach our kids that ‘failure’ isn’t the end of the world, and teach them how to bounce back and improve.”

Colorado Rush celebrate with their ECNL U-15 national championship trophy* “Trophies reduce the time spent dealing with crazy parents – yes, I said it, C-R-A-Z-Y parents. There is usually one in every team that is just a white-hot mess, full of irrational behavior and unable to see see the world through anyone else’s eyes, other than those gazing at their child as king of the world with no faults. Rather than stand up to one, people just do things for everyone else that those crazy parents work hardest for.”

* “Trophies can also a way to brand. Those things live on shelves and counter tops for years…with the league logo there for all family visitors to see.”

* “The awards companies are very good at sales and marketing. What trophy salesperson doesn’t think everyone should get an award? Some clubs and leagues are run by people who just can’t say no and enjoy working with nice sales people who only want their kids to be happy. There could be incentives as well, like a loyalty program that falsely make it seem like you’re saving money by spending on something you wouldn’t have bought anyway.”

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