In defense of participation trophies

Tom Junod

My daughter is 13 years old, and on most nights, I still read to her. We just finished the last of the "Harry Potter" books and are to start Marcus Zusak's "The Book Thief." My daughter reads on her own, as do I, but we've been reading together for so long that we've each grown accustomed to its pleasures -- me, of animating a story by means of my voice, and she, of inhabiting a story with her ears instead of her eyes. We've stalled out a few times, especially during the long grind of "The Deathly Hallows," and we've stopped altogether once or twice before realizing we missed the venerable bedtime ritual -- or, more likely, each other. And so it is that after she turns off her computer but before she turns off the lights, she still calls to me, "Dad, can you come and read?" And I still trudge up the stairs to honor the last of her unbroken childhood habits, ever aware that one day the call won't come and that I can never know which trip up the stairs will be my last.

We do not face each other when we read. We assume the same positions we always have: she on her bed with her back propped against the wall and me on a guest mattress with my back propped against her bed, the both of us facing her bookshelves, which offer their own view of her childhood, defined mostly by what she has left behind. On the bottom shelves are the books she no longer reads; a little farther up, the trolls she no longer collects; at the very top, the globe she no longer spins. Just about everything she once cherished has found its final resting place on those shelves -- everything, that is, except her trophies, which are very much alive and have kept accumulating over the years, until their swollen ranks have colonized large stretches of shelf space, a fungal growth of golden female figurines.

She has, at last count, 16 of them. She received her first when she was 7 and played church-league T-ball. She received her most recent just a few weeks ago when she played rec-league softball. She has trophies for soccer, in which she was skilled but often shy of the scuffle, and for basketball, in which she was skilled but also plainly scared to death. She also has two of unknown provenance, generic in the terms of commendation etched upon their plinths: "You're a Star!" She has always been a good player, especially in softball, in which she can run and throw and put a bat on any ball, even if it's 2 feet over her head. But she has never played on a travel team, and of all her trophies, she was awarded only one -- the most recent -- for playing on a championship team. The rest are what have come to be called participation trophies, given to every child on the team, win or lose, for showing up and completing the season.

I never thought anything of them. More precisely, I never thought anything of it: the fact that they were trophies unconnected to victory. To me, dusty as they are, they all have their luster and serve as reminders of particular teams, particular teammates, particular coaches and particular games that are lovely in retrospect precisely because they didn't really count. Yes, the trophies might very well be, in the words I've heard from so many, "useless hardware," but they are also fossils in the natural history museum of my daughter's days of innocence, still on display.

As for my daughter, she is even less equivocal. They are hers, she earned them, and she cherishes them not as tokens of bygone days but as emblems of her identity as an athlete. She still plays, she still wants to play, and though I have no idea how far her career might go, her desire to "participate" is a powerful part of her personality. You have no doubt heard the phrase "everybody gets a trophy." Perhaps you have used it as it's most often used -- sarcastically -- or as the coach of the Louisville women's basketball team recently used it -- as an explanation for everything that ails American culture. Well, my daughter is precisely the kind of kid who gets a trophy when everybody gets a trophy. It never occurred to me to think of "everybody gets a trophy" as anything but a benign fact of her youth until the day after the presidential election, when participation trophies somehow came to the fore as unlikely symbols of America's ongoing and intractable polarization.

We are a nation of participants. We often aspire to be something else -- to be something more -- but we can't realize our grander ambitions unless we first do ourselves the great favor of showing up. We start as participants, and if we are honest with ourselves, we must accept that we also end as participants, spending our lives in pursuit of what eludes us, to faint applause. We are participants when we go out to to play, and we are participants when we start keeping score; we are participants when we run and participants when we race; we are participants when we lose and participants even when we win, for as soon as we receive our first-place medals and our championship trophies, we have to return to the ranks of the participants and start all over again, knowing that doing our best might very well be the best thing that any of us will ever do.

I am a participant. So, probably, are you. If you are, say, under 25, you might have even received a trophy honoring your participatory status. If you are, say, over 30, you might have a child who has brought home a participation trophy, win or lose, and though you might have mixed feelings about the trophy itself, you are probably happy and proud that your child decided to get out there and play instead of staring at a computer. There was a time when if you left kids to themselves, they'd find a ball and organize a ballgame, but those sweet days, the days of city streets being commandeered for stickball and suburban streets for football, are long gone. If kids are going to play sports at all, they're going to play in some kind of league, at some kind of park or facility owned by some kind of institution, under the watchful eyes of their coaches and, yes, their parents. If they are really good, they'll start playing with other really good kids, for more demanding coaches, in front of more demanding parents. If they're participants, they'll get participation trophies.

Now, I have no objections to any aspect of this arrangement because an arrangement is exactly what it is: the regimentation of children's free time in the salubrious name of sports. Neither, I suspect, do you, or else the arrangement, such as it is, would not have persisted and flourished for the better part of the past 30 years, with our children persisting and flourishing within its parameters. If you objected to a youth sports culture in which participation trophies play an integral part, you would not participate. But you do, or you have, probably with no untoward effects, which is what makes the controversy about participation trophies so very curious and so curiously representative of our time.

On Nov. 8, a nation of participants gave itself over to the essential exercise in participatory democracy and went peacefully about the task of electing a new president. Early in the morning on Nov. 9, we discovered that we had elected Donald J. Trump. That day, there were reports of grieving college students unable to participate in school, or, if they did go, asking their professors to spare them from taking their tests, and there were reports of professors complying and buying them pizzas instead. That night, students began to participate in protests that erupted in big cities and small college towns all over the country, continued for well over a week and, in a few well-publicized cases, turned violent.

The conservative response was swift and remarkably decisive, settling, it seemed, on two explanations. The first, which came all the way from the top -- initially from the Twitter account of the President-elect -- was that the protesters had been paid to protest, probably by George Soros. The second was that the protesters were nothing more than "coddled crybabies" indulging their wounded sense of "liberal entitlement" and that the protests themselves were not the inevitable consequence of one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in American history but, rather, the result of participation trophies.

Yes, that's right: the same participation trophies that have accumulated on my daughter's bookshelves, the same participation trophies that either brought you or your children a smile after another pleasantly inconclusive end of another pleasantly ragtag season of youth soccer. Or maybe I should call them "liberal participation trophies," as that's the sobriquet they've acquired on outlets of conservative news and opinion all over the Internet. I had always thought that, if anything, participation trophies were anodyne to a fault -- as neutral as Switzerland, as cloying as the juice in juice boxes. In the days after the election, however, I kept hearing from voices such as Fox talk show host Sean Hannity and blaze.com's Tomi Lahren that they were anything but, that they not only had played a nefarious role in fomenting civil unrest but also represented the first step in a continuum of corrupting liberal contrivance that ended in safe spaces and trigger warnings. Quoth Hannity: "Apparently, this is how the PC culture -- where everybody's a winner, everybody gets a participation trophy -- and these liberals operate." Useless hardware? Hardly. Participation trophies function as an idea, and if, as hardware, they have the disadvantage of meaning nothing, as an idea they have the advantage of meaning ... well, anything anybody wants them to mean.

A few days before the 2016 election, John Merrill, the Republican secretary of state for the state of Alabama, became notorious in some liberal circles for something he said about participation trophies. It wasn't simply that he disapproved of them -- a lot of people disapprove of participation trophies, in theory if not in practice. It was that Merrill invoked his disapproval of them to explain his disapproval of policy reform over which his office had considerable say. The policy reform was automatic voter registration, which would add every citizen of Alabama to the rolls of eligible voters as soon as he or she turned 18, by default. In a documentary on voting rights, Merrill had explained his opposition to the idea by insisting that it cheapened the struggles of civil rights activists who had literally bled for the franchise in the state he served. "I'm not going to embarrass them by allowing somebody who's too sorry to get off their rear ends to register to vote ... to think they've got the right because they've turned 18. To me, that's no different from giving them a trophy because they've played on a ball team. You only get a trophy if you win."

Merrill remembered what he'd said in the film when I called him, and he apologized for it -- apologized for allowing the filmmakers, whom he called "our liberal friends from New England," to irritate him with their questions and force him to be "less than my best self." He did not, however, apologize for his feelings about participation trophies. He played a lot of ball as a boy; he never got a trophy unless he won. He coached a lot of ball when he became an adult; he never gave out trophies unless his team won. That's not just the way it was; that's the way it had always been until "somewhere someone decided that if you participate, you get a trophy. I don't know who that person was. I don't know why that person felt that way. Maybe they just weren't good enough. That's the way I see it, friend. It might have been a daddy or a well-meaning coach. But whoever it was, he did a disservice to that team and to our nation."

The protests that started the night after the presidential election were still going at full-force when I talked to Merrill. Did he think participation trophies had something to do with them? "I agree with that 100 percent," he said. "It's just like these rooms I've seen that say 'safe room' or 'safe place.' I don't know what that is. You know, people lie. People get fired. People lose ballgames. Sometimes you get beat, and it makes you stronger. Steel is forged in a fire; diamonds the same way. It's just like offering free college tuitions. Everybody doesn't get to go to college. Everybody doesn't get go to Disney World. But we've built a culture in our nation that wasn't what the country was built on. We don't need to give our children participation trophies. We need to prepare them for the fire."

I asked Merrill about his own children. He has a son, he said, who played sports "at the highest level a child could play at. He won a bunch of championships." His daughter was no different; they both earned their share of trophies. Did either of them ever bring home a participation trophy?

"No, sir," Merrill said. "Because I never would have allowed that to enter my house."

"We don't need to give our children participation trophies. We need to prepare them for the fire." John Merrill

When you talk to people who strongly disapprove of participation trophies, they agree that participation should be encouraged. They even agree that participation should be rewarded. They just don't think it should be encouraged and rewarded with a trophy, the symbolism of which turns out to be sacrosanct and cheapened at great peril. Indeed, they use economic metaphors to describe trophies distributed at no apparent cost to the recipient: as "devalued currency," as "Monopoly money," as "fool's gold." I spoke to a number of people who had very strong feelings, not just about participation trophies but also about the generation of children who grew up receiving them, which one person called "a generation of narcissists and sociopaths." But none of them spoke as a recipient of participation trophies; none of them even spoke as the parent of children who were the recipients of participation trophies. They all spoke in terms of the championship trophies they won and how much those trophies meant to them. They often spoke of the championship trophies their children had won, as if at pains to say that their children lived in a world in which participation trophies did not apply. It was a response that, for all its hard edges, was essentially nostalgic: We might go through life as participants, but we talk about participation trophies as if we have never been anything less than champions.

If you have well-formed ideas about participation trophies, there's a pretty fair chance that you got them from two sources. The first is James Harrison's Instagram post from 2015, in which the legendarily disruptive Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker talks about his experience of coming home "to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies!" The second is a Kia commercial.

If you've read the first or watched the second, you will remember them because they made participation trophies nothing less than tests of parental conscience. Harrison did not simply disapprove of his sons' ill-gotten gains; he promised that "these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy," and so he became a hero -- if not to his sons then to those whose discomfort with an America less competitive than participatory had just found a genuine badass of a spokesman. He also helped inspire the Kia commercial, which was called "Participation" and was produced by the L.A.-based advertising agency David&Goliath as a way for Kia, described as a "challenger brand" by D&G's founder, David Angelo, to insert itself in a national conversation about participation trophies and the decline of America's competitive spirit. "Participation" ran for the first time on Sunday Night Football, and Angelo wanted it to do a couple things: "to speak to people in their own language," so they would see Kia "as a friend rather than as a brand," and to whisper to football fans "who might not come right out and say that they don't like participation trophies but felt that way inside." Most importantly, he wanted to send a confirming message to "all the people who grew up in my era: Yes, there is something wrong with us."

There is something intimate about selling people on their own doubts, and that's exactly what "Participation" sets out to do, to the extent that it makes us privy to a father's grouchy interior monologue as he walks off the playing field and asks his son to show him the trophy he just received: "Participation trophy. But we ... we won all our games. Why are we getting the same trophy as teams we beat? Are we going to be ending games with hugs instead of handshakes ..." Before the father opens the car door, he snaps off the offending "Participant" plaque from the trophy's base and, with a defiant "no," writes the word "Champs" with a Sharpie. Then he gets in and hands the trophy back to his son with the words, "Here you go, Champ," and they drive off in a Kia Sorrento now enlisted in the war against the erosion of American standards.

It's an incredibly effective ad, and I've watched it many times, finding myself sharing the father's' aching dismay, his sense of grievance, his suspicion that something has not been given to his son but rather taken away, his determination to get it back. But I've also found myself doing something else: realizing that "Participation" is a fantasy that has nothing whatsoever to do with my own experience, either as a participant or as a parent.

She was 9 years old. She sat huddled by a fence with her coach and a teammate. It was night, so the lights were on, but she sat in the shadows, as her coach tried to bring her to the Lord. I was used to this -- my daughter had been playing sports at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, in Marietta, Georgia, since she was 7. One night per season, the coaches were obliged to proselytize their young charges; this was the night, so I was already anticipating the questions she'd ask on the way home. What I didn't anticipate was hearing her shout, in a voice that carried all the way from the other side of the field, "Hey, Dad! I'm going to get baptized!"

My daughter did not get baptized. But neither did she play youth sports within the "liberal bubble." If anything, she played in the conservative Christian one, in a league in which coaches asked their players to memorize Bible verses, handed out adhesive stars after each game to recognize each player for some exemplary quality, including the player who had been "most Christlike," and yes, celebrated the end of each season by distributing participation trophies. Indeed, as soon as I began researching participation trophies, I began looking for the person who invented them, and when I visited the man who ran my daughter's church league, I decided that, in a way, I had found him. Danny Downing might not have invented participation trophies, but he invented the practice of giving them out at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church.

"We had our first league here in 2000-2001," Downing told me. "We gave out stars after every game, and at the end of the season, there was a player gift instead of a trophy. Everybody got a watch. At the end of season, we sent the parents a survey: What did you like or not like? Overwhelmingly, it came back they wanted a trophy for their kids. So the second season, we added a participation trophy. As this theory came out - that kids these days feel entitled because we give out participation trophies -- we kept asking about them on our surveys. On our latest survey, 73 percent of parents favored them. Parents really see value in their kids getting a trophy, especially young kids. There are great lessons in winning and losing, but a 4-year old is not going to understand those lessons. When children are that young, you just try to instill fundamentals and a love of the sport. And even when we started having tournaments for the older kids, immediately some parents wanted second-place ribbons. Why? Because they wanted their children to be recognized for their hard work."

Was this part of some ground-level conspiracy to foist liberal values on unsuspecting parents and helpless children? "We are hardly liberal," Downing said. But there was the ideological issue of participation trophies, and then there was the Saturday afternoon practice of handing them out, and he had faith that most parents could still tell the difference. They were realistic; they knew that most of the children who played at Johnson Ferry were not going to keep playing once they left. They were not going to have careers in sports, and so their parents wanted them to have the experience of receiving a trophy. It was that simple.

"Have you heard of that football player who took away his children's participation trophies?" Downing asked, referencing Harrison, before I left his office. "Well, I did a little research: Do you know that his youngest child was 6 years old? He wasn't 12; he was 6, and I think people's opinions would change if they knew it. Have you ever seen a 6-year-old kid get a participation trophy? He doesn't care about winning or losing. He just cares that he played and he was there. The smile on this kid! And I doubt very much that later on in life, he's going to say, 'Well, I always need to win because I got a participation trophy when I was 6 years old.' Anyway, can you imagine taking the trophy away from him?"

On Dec. 10, Roswell High School played Grayson High School for the state 7-A championship of Georgia. It was a big high school football game. Both teams were nationally ranked; both teams were loaded with players who had transferred to Roswell and Grayson for the specific purpose of playing football. The teams played in the Georgia Dome, they played on television, and they played with the announcers never talking about a player without mentioning where the player was ranked as a national prospect and how many offers he'd received from major college programs. The teams played astonishingly hard and astonishingly well, with players on both side rising to levels of performance that would have been jaw-dropping on a college field a few decades ago. The game went into overtime, and when Roswell lost on a missed 42-yard field goal, Grayson's coach ran out on the field, embraced the Roswell kicker, and told him he would pray for him.

Did such an intensely contested game provide proof that some players manage to rise above the ruinous effects of participation trophies? It did not. It confirmed, instead, that "elite" players exist in a competitive stratum in which the very idea of participation trophies would be laughable. When I set out to learn the history of participation trophies, I spoke to Caroline Adams Miller, who wrote the forthcoming book "Getting Grit" and who suggested that participation trophies emerged some three decades ago as part of the "self-esteem movement," which, she said, "has been a horrible disaster for America's children." But the self-esteem movement itself arose to compensate for another movement, which is the movement to make childhood itself more meritocratic. In athletics, in academics and in the performing arts, children are herded and culled from an early age, the better to identify a competitive elite that can withstand the rigors of a world in which there are no participation trophies -- only data. It is not a process we like to talk about, even when our children succeed. They are remorselessly specialized and professionalized; we insist on saying they have been infantilized. We should be calling them the travel-team generation, the taught-to-the-test generation, the mountain-of-homework generation, the AP-class generation, the child-star generation or the elite-college-application-anxiety generation. Instead, we call them the "participation trophy generation," as if to suggest they are unsuited for the "real world" our own anxieties have helped create. And here's the thing: They know it. The participation trophy debate is noteworthy for the delusions and fantasies that drive it, chief among them that it's about a generation of children. It isn't. It's about a generation of parents suddenly afflicted with a collective case of giver's remorse. It's about parents who like to imagine that they've earned everything they've gotten, that they received their trophies only because they were winners and that their children receive them only because, well, nowadays a winner is what everybody has to be.

"This is the first generation that was told they had to be protected," Caroline Adams Miller said. But of all the fond delusions at play in the national discussion about participation trophies, the one least connected to reality is the notion that an entire generation of parents has given rise to an entire generation of children that doesn't know the difference between winning and losing. They damned well know the difference, and we have finally driven them to act upon a knowledge that has been, despite all our best intentions, hard-won.

If you want to find out if the post-election protests were caused by participation trophies, ask some of the protesters. It's not that they will say no; they can hardly be expected to say anything else. It's that the question itself sounds patently ridiculous and self-evidently absurd, despite the social media multitudes who have convinced themselves of the legitimacy of its premise, and despite Caroline Miller's belief that the protests provided "the first sign" that the participation trophy generation was capable "of showing some steel in their spines."

Nevertheless, I wound up asking the question of five protesters in the course of writing this essay, including the college student who lives across the street. Her name is Natalie. She was with her father, who was mowing the lawn. His name is Danny, and he is kind and decent, endlessly supportive of his only child. I was surprised, then, when I asked Natalie about the connection between protests and participation trophies and heard his affirming murmur: "You know, not everyone's a winner in the real world."

She brushed him off and did me the favor of not laughing at my question. Indeed, she did what the other protesters I interviewed did and engaged me in an earnest discussion of entitlement and privilege. She could see why, from the outside, people called her generation coddled. She could even see why they had issues with participation trophies. "But to say that participation trophies caused the protests, well, that's a streeeeeetch." ... "Well, in the real world not everybody gets a trophy," Danny said.

"Participation trophies function as an idea, and if, as hardware, they have the disadvantage of meaning nothing, as an idea they have the advantage of meaning ... well, anything anybody wants them to mean."

At first, I thought he was teasing her, and maybe he was. But Natalie didn't think so, and she wheeled around and said, "Dad, I live in the real world. And in the real world, there are people who are really scared and concerned for their families. I went to those protests because I'm scared and concerned for them and wanted to give them my support. It had nothing to do with participation trophies!"

Then it occurred to me: Maybe it did. Maybe Sean Hannity was right, and it had everything to do with participation trophies. They had given the children who received them a specific moral education from a very young age, with "useless hardware" providing lessons in equal access and "everyone gets a trophy" serving not as a punch line but as a kind of vision statement. Now those children's parents were begrudging not only the participation trophies but also the education that came with them; the children who won trophies "just for showing up" had shown up when called upon, and their parents had responded with fantasies of taking the trophies back.

A few days after the election, my daughter asked me what I was writing about.

"Participation trophies," I answered.

"Really? Why?"

"Because some people don't like them."

I had always wondered what she made of the trophies crowding her shelves. I had always wondered what she made of the election and the issues at hand. Now she answered both my questions with a single reply, characteristically succinct and delivered with a shrug.

"Oh, that's because they don't want losers to ever think they can win," she said. "That's because they don't want the fat kids to think that they can get a trophy."

I was 9 years old, and I wasn't good enough. I couldn't hit, couldn't run, couldn't throw; moreover, I was so obviously terrified that my brother and sister resisted going to my games, out of pity. I don't remember hearing a word of encouragement from my coach; I don't remember him ever so much as talking to me. What I do remember is feeling like s--- all the time and feeling terribly alone. And when my team won the championship and I received a trophy, I hated it, for the idealized gold figurine, coming around his follow through and watching the flight of the ball he'd just belted, seemed cast in a posture of mockery. I played one season; I've never played a game of baseball since.

Did I hate the trophy because I hadn't earned it, because I participated in the championship season without contributing, because it served as a precursor to the trophies crowding my daughter's shelves? Possibly. But I couldn't help but think of myself and my own unfortunate career as I watched my daughter flourish in hers at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church -- not just because she literally never struck out, not just because she was so much better than I was, not just because she was so good. No, I thought of myself because I couldn't help but see myself in her less talented teammates and see, at the same time, how much fun they were having. They couldn't hit, couldn't run, couldn't throw, but at the end of every game, their coaches singled them out for something they had done well and gave them a star to put on their batting helmets, and at the end of every season, they received a participation trophy. I don't know where those trophies are now. They're probably collecting dust or maybe even moldering in a landfill. But I know one thing about them: They elicited smiles. And the girls who brought them home didn't hate them, despite the absence of the word "champions."

We raise our kids differently from the way I was raised, and we coach them differently from the way I was coached. I keep hearing that we have diminished expectations for them, but we don't -- far from it. We just have different ones, in that we expect them to be kinder than we are, in that we expect them to be more open and inclusive, in that we expect them to participate without the iron expectation that they win, for we strive, above all, to never make them feel like s---. Does the new way work better than the old? I don't know. But I will say that my daughter, still read to at 13, is doing better than I did at the same age, so when I listen to the voices blaming participation trophies for all manner of ills, I hear the undercurrent of what they're saying, and I fear it. Do we really want to let our nostalgia carry us back to the way it was? Do we really want to entrust ourselves, all over again, to the magic utility of making kids feel like s---? Do we hate our children so much? Do we hate ourselves?

I still don't know who invented participation trophies. John Merrill, the Alabama secretary of state, thought of the inventor as someone who, when he played sports, just wasn't good enough, and so he grew up to be a well-meaning father who wanted nothing more from his child than a smile. He's probably right. So in the absence of other suspects, I'll take the rap. If you are a participant and proud of the participants in your life, so should you.