A shell game of achievement

Washington Nationals right-fielder Bryce Harper told a group of Little Leaguers in Washington, D.C., that participation trophies are not OK. “No participation trophies,” he said May 27. “First place only.”

For 48 hours, Harper was a champion to parents everywhere who are trying to raise their children without the new let’s-make-everything-fair playbook. Unfortunately, he later threw a tantrum and started a brawl on the field after Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland struck him with a ball, so Harper’s role model status was short-lived. However, for a brief time over the holiday weekend, Bryce Harper said what most of us believe. Indeed, it seemed that the entire internet was behind Harper when he took down participation-trophy culture.

Maybe because that culture has already been toppled.

We’ve been beating the no-participation-trophies drum for a while now, and for many years, the internet has mostly been the choir to which we’re preaching. Editorials in defense of participation trophies are few and far between, and in my own life as a mother, we haven’t been part of a sports organization that gives out participation trophies since 2005. Times have certainly changed, and it would seem that those who agree with Harper are in the majority, not the minority.

So why do we still make this argument with such fervor, as if we there is an entire belief system that needs to be changed?

I thought about this for a long time after Harper’s Little League speech and the internet’s reaction that followed. Who are we still trying to convince? Who is still giving out participation trophies? Why is this still a fight to be had? It seems like almost everyone is in agreement.

Then I realized: “participation trophies” in youth sports has become the catchall argument for a conversation that is largely misplaced. Of all aspects of a child’s life, it seems that sports is the one area where it is now acceptable to strive for and be recognized for greatness. But while we were all arguing about participation trophies, something else was going on that no one noticed, or maybe we just don’t have a catchy rally cry for it yet.

In 2016, a school board in North Carolina voted to stop publicly recognizing high school valedictorians due to the “unhealthy” competition it encourages. According to a Washington Times article (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/may/19/nc-school-board-votes-to-stop-naming-valedictorian/ ), the “policy encourages high school principles to use ‘broad means of recognizing student achievement,’ instead of class rank, though state law will still require the board to record class rank on student transcripts.” “Broad means” is code word for “watered down,” or, perhaps, “participation trophies.”

Earlier this year, another southern school board visited the idea of nixing valedictorian status, with the school system’s executive director of K-12 Instruction, according to a Gaston Gazette article (http://www.gastongazette.com/news/20170327/should-schools-recognize-valedictorians-and-salutatorians), saying, “Not one of those words [valedictorian/salutatorian] shows up on a high school transcript, not one of those words is going to prevent or add to a student’s ability to gain scholarship money, grant opportunities.”

(Note: words like “football captain” or “first place in the art show” don’t show up on transcripts either. Should we take those away, too?)

These are just two examples, but schools everywhere are in large and small ways diluting the academic achievements of individual students in order to make things fair. It’s the participation trophy of youth sports all over again, as if parents said, “OK, fine, we will have greatness in youth sports, but please, can my child at least feel on par with everyone else in the classroom?” It’s a shell game of achievement, and the only people who are benefitting are the adults.

Every bit of this — the trophies, not naming valedictorians at graduation — is manufactured by adults to make ourselves feel better. It gives us a sense of control, but it’s a sham. Kids always know, and usually happily acknowledge, the winners around them. On the baseball field, they know who’s the best hitter. In the classroom, they know who’s making the best grades. In the art room, they know who can draw a human that isn’t a stick figure. Even when it comes to fashion and style, kids know who’s got it. We are fooling only ourselves if we think taking away public recognition of any of these things masks what kids already know.

So when Bryce Harper got passionate about participation trophies at an event for Little League, where only a very select few go on to participate in the Little League World Series, I had to wonder if he’s really pushing back on something bigger than youth sports, something we don’t have a name for yet. “Participation trophies” is an easy label and it’s served us well as we take on the dilution of greatness in youth sports. But the argument has changed, and for too long, we’ve just been preaching to that choir.

— Sarah Smiley is a syndicated columnist whose columns are peridiocally published in Kitsap New Group newspapers. A Navy spouse, she has ties to this region but now lives with her family in Maine.