Participation trophies: good or bad?

James Harrison, a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, last week sent back his sons' trophies because they were the dreaded kind, received only for participating in a sport.

James Harrison, a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, last week sent back his sons’ trophies because they were the dreaded kind, received only for participating in a sport. Harrison’s sons are only 8- and 6-years old, so it’s easy to imagine big, teary eyes, and little hands grasping for the plastic trophy that was supposed to boost their self-esteem.

Then again, when your dad is an NFL linebacker, you likely have other ways to feel good about yourself, like front row seats to the Super Bowl.

Harrison’s Instagram post announcing his plans to return his sons’ trophies read in full:

“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! 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 … cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better … not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.”

My first thought was, “Wow, I didn’t know Instagram allowed so many characters for one post.” My second thought was, “go Harrison.” My third thought involved regret for contributing to this culture of entitlement when I gave away goodie bags to every child who attended my boys’ birthday parties.

In the real world, only the birthday boy gets a gift. The attendees are lucky if they get cake to awkwardly eat with a plastic fork in a corner of the office conference room.

It’s the same with trophies.

In real life competition, there is one winner and a bunch of losers. That’s why Jerry Seinfeld, in “I’m Telling You for the Last Time,” ( joked that he’d never want to win a silver medal:

“If you win the gold, you feel good. If you win the bronze, you think: ‘Well, at least I got something.’ But if you win the silver, it’s like: ‘Congratulations! You … almost won.’ ‘Of all the losers, you came in first of that group.’ ‘You’re the number one … loser.’ ‘No one lost … ahead of you.'”

The world always knows who won—even when no one is keeping score. Erik Brady, writing for USA TODAY Sports (, touched on this phenomenon, but to make a different, pro-participation-trophy point. He called the argument over these freebie trophies “nonsense.”

“Kids always know the fastest kid on the playground and the best players on their teams,” Brady wrote. “They know the difference between winning and losing and the distance between first place and last.”

Yes, exactly. That’s why the participation trophy eventually feels empty.

Brady continued: “They do not grow up to believe they are winners in life just because they got a tin trophy for finishing fifth in rec league basketball.”

Well, tell that to my tone-deaf husband who hums every song to what sounds like the tune to Gilligan’s Island. For many years, he thought he could sing because someone in elementary school told him he had a good voice. I spent the first decade of our marriage undoing that damage and listening to him sing Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now.”

But back to Brady’s first point: Kids already know who won. They really do. My youngest son once threw his baseball helmet on the ground because he got out at first base and no one made him go to the dugout. “Didn’t anyone see that I got out?” he yelled. “I’m supposed to be out!”

Which is why this whole argument about participation trophies really should be taken to the kids, not fought with ideas and words between adults. I mean, do today’s kids even want these plastic paper weights?

I asked three that I know personally:

Child No. 1, age 14: “Participation trophies do not give me more self-esteem or anything. In fact, it just deprives me of the chance of getting a REAL trophy.”

Child No. 2, age 12: “I played Little League and I wanted to get the Championship trophy. I wanted to win. That’s why I loved Little League. They didn’t hand out freebies. Participation trophies don’t make kids strive to do better. They make them think they have already achieved it. Also, they make it so the people who do achieve the athletic or academic standards feel like they didn’t earn anything because EVERYONE got one.”

Child No. 3, age 8: “Participation trophies? What’s that?”

As I read this aloud to child one, two, and three, they were offended that I “chopped up their long quotes.” One was mad that the other got more space.

And so I told them, “Well, if you had written it better, it would have made it into print. Welcome to the real world of publishing.”