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James Harrison drives conversation about taking away kids' participation trophies

LATROBE, Pa. -- James Harrison has sacked quarterbacks 71.5 times in his career.

Never has he struck something quite like this.

What started as an Instagram post over the weekend has mushroomed into a parenting discussion about whether sports participation deserves a trophy.

When CNN gets involved, the story has transcended normal NFL fandom.

Like most things, there’s more to the Harrison trophy story. His sons were recipients of student-athlete awards for good grades as part of the Best of the Batch Foundation, run by Harrison’s former teammate, now-retired quarterback Charlie Batch. Upholding a certain standard in the classroom is part of the program.

That’s not what drew interest. Harrison’s words on the topic were pointed, and they came at a time when the everyone-gets-a-trophy notion had bubbled to the mainstream. If Harrison hits send on this message two years ago, the reaction might have been tame. Not now. Harrison told ESPN on Sunday he's successfully returned the trophies but didn't answer follow-up questions as he entered a loud haze of autograph-seekers at training camp.

Harrison is taking a stand on something to which on some level every parent can relate. There doesn’t seem to be mass outrage against Harrison’s stance, or at least I haven’t seen that. After following the story on social media, many take the stand of indifference while appreciating why Harrison might feel this way. After all, he was a former Kent State walk-on has been cut twice and played a season in NFL Europe early in his career. One fan outside Steelers’ practice Sunday yelled to Harrison, “I appreciate what you’re teaching your sons.”

ESPN’s Mike Greenberg from Mike and Mike used the story line to draw attention to the need for kids’ participation in activities, whether they receive trophies or not.

By snapping a picture and posting the trophies on Instagram with his own message, Harrison has stirred a debate about the concept of rewarding children in athletics and whether benchmarks should be appropriate for those rewards.

There doesn’t’ seem to a right or wrong answer.

This story is all about timing and resonance. It's also emblematic of how sports coverage has shifted. A story like this can draw more interest than player injuries and coaching changes because it affects people on a human level. It also elicits the sort of he-did-what reaction that social media is made for.

Who knows if Harrison will go anywhere else with this story, though holding up a Lombardi in six months would be an entertaining response.