The Ethics of “Everyone Wins”

About a week ago, Nancy Armour (USA Today) wrote an insightful article (August 18, 2015) entitled: “Armour: James Harrison is right, you shouldn’t get a prize for showing up.”

ParticipationThe article was prompted by Steelers LB James Harrison who took away participation trophies from his kids. His contention was that his children should not be awarded trophies unless they actually earn them.

Said Armour:

“Somewhere along the way, someone had the misguided notion that kids should live in a la-la land where everything is perfect, there are no hardships or heartbreaks, and you get a shiny trophy or a pretty blue ribbon just for being you…

No wonder study after study has shown that millennials, the first of the trophy generations, are stressed out and depressed. They were sold a bill of goods when they were kids, and discovering that the harsh realities of life apply to them, too, had to have been like a punch to the gut.”

No one is wrong, but no one is completely right

In thinking about this piece I wondered, “Where did it all start?” How did it come to pass that participation trophies even came about? It wasn’t a four year-old millennial entrepreneurial, kid-genius who made the first participation trophy. It wasn’t a Gen-Xer either. It was, I am afraid, the Boomer Generation; my generation. But why?

Since this is my blog, I hope you do not mind if I take a trip down my own memory lane. My parents were the driven parents who experienced WWII. They had come through the Great Depression and two or even three wars (I am counting Korea and those who were older remembered WWI as well). Many of them lived in a hardscrabble time. They learned from an early age that no one was about to give them anything.

They made sure to teach that lesson to their kids (my generation). I need to say something that should be obvious: none of us truly understands what the WWII generation fully experienced. Compared to them, my Boomer generation, Gen-X and Millennials are spoiled rotten. I would also say that they set a bar of expectations very high – and sometimes, stupidly high.

In terms of sports, it was not easy to hit that high bar. In fact – and without sounding like a whiner – I saw (and experienced) several situations where teachers (and coaches) who had come back from war, treated middle school (we were Junior High back then) kids as though they were 20 year-old Marine recruits preparing for an invasion.

They wanted to “toughen us up,” and I saw what might best be described in today’s lingo as corporal punishment. I know James Harrison with his past temper problems would probably “not have liked” some of my Junior High and High School Coaches.

James Harrison was touched by the gods. He is in the NFL and between Millennial and Gen-X. I admire his accomplishments, but he is also exceptional. The guys behind him in the depth chart; the guys who never made the depth chart; the guys who were cut at any point along the way, also tried their guts out. They were good but not great. We all need to accept that sometimes trying hard is just not enough to overcome a lack of talent.

I disagree that Millennials have been punched in the gut with the realities of life because of the trophies. We have all been punched. Speaking of that, I well remember a classmate, “Richie,” a 13-1/2 year old punched hard, full-force in the guts by the wrestling coach. It was Richie’s punishment for failing a test; it was not in the gym but outside of our history class (the coach was our teacher). Richie vomited, and was writhing around on the floor for several minutes trying to catch his breath. The coach mocked him.

Stuff like that stayed with us.

Maybe we wanted to give out trophies to show kids that not every coach they would meet in life was a part of the anatomy I shouldn’t describe by using slang. Maybe the trophy stuff got away from us, but we meant no harm.

Kids are not stupid

Some good news and some bad news:

First, kids are not stupid.

You can take a soccer team and give every one of them a participation trophy. Then after they get those trophies, ask them this:

“Who are the best players on your team?”

They will tell you; without fail. That’s the good news. In the years to follow, the better athletes will become even better athletes. Most of the participation trophies will collect dust and will eventually find their way to landfills. It’s all OK.

The bad news are those parents who refuse to let go. They are the parents trying to live their athletic fantasies through disinterested kids and who scream at coaches and officials and other parents because they cannot accept reality. They keep shoving meaningless trophies on their kids maybe in the hope that something magical will happen.

Dear Parent: Something magical is happening! Your “world class athlete” may be deciding that they would rather be veterinarians, programmers, executive chefs or talk show hosts. Celebrate that!

My advice is that everyone should take a deep breath about this award stuff.

Our much bigger challenge is to keep the jerks away from our kids and to let them be kids. Whether the jerk is a lunatic coach, an unrealistic parent or even a teacher, they will do infinitely more harm to a child than a stupid two-dollar trophy.







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