Ed Graney: Participation trophies not doing kids any harm

Ed Graney The Las Vegas Review-Journal
RJ FILE*** LOCAL - Las Vegas Review-Journal Sports columnist, Ed Graney, is photographed at the R-J studeo Monday morning, May 22, 2006. CLINT KARLSEN/REVIEW-JOURNAL (slug: coumnsig_graney)

It was during my second year of college, one of those weekend trips home for Mom to feed me and do my laundry and otherwise pamper a 19-year-old like he was 6 again. I sure could use a few more of those days.

The wife, shockingly, disagrees.

The old room had changed a bit since my departure, and I arrived this particular time to several packed boxes. Mom was about to discard different parts of my life, probably to make room for something really important. Like another barcalounger for Dad.

Inside one of the boxes were those trophies from an incredibly undistinguished youth sports career. It took less time to close the box than it had to open it.

Funny. Among those (non) conquests of Little League diamonds and 8-foot basketball hoops and flag football fields were some participation trophies.

They meant nothing to me inside that box.

They meant the world to me when receiving them years earlier.

I’m not suggesting that James Harrison’s mode of parental guidance is wrong. If landing a quadruple jump in ice skating or winning the Tour de France without the aid of artificial help is among life’s most difficult challenges, parenting is in the same neighborhood.

Whoever said parenting is the easiest thing in the world to have an opinion about but the hardest thing to do deserves a gold star. And don’t get me started on the teenage years, when those young minds who once were so curious stop asking questions because they suddenly know all the answers.

So if Harrison, a veteran linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, has a problem with his two young sons accepting participation trophies, he is entitled to send them back (the trophies, not the sons).

If he truly believes the best way to turn boys into men is to deny them symbols for trying their best in a particular endeavor, it’s his right to raise them in such a manner.

(I would suggest another way for Harrison to teach his sons to be good men would be to use himself as an example of how not to treat women, given in 2008 he admitted to police that he broke down a bedroom door, slapped his girlfriend in the face and snapped her cellphone in half.)

I digress.

Harrison on Monday made national news for something other than trying to add depth behind younger outside linebackers in Pittsburgh, writing on an Instagram post that he was taking away the participation trophies until his boys “EARN a real trophy.” The majority of responses that followed were as predictable as they were shortsighted, which means any that came from those north of 40.

Yeah, all of us oldies.

I’m not certain, but there had to be countless stories about walking 10 miles to school and back in the snow with all those opinions that participation trophies make kids soft.

Let’s not overthink the room. Let’s not try to discover some deep, profound life lesson to impart when there really isn’t one.

It’s a trophy.

It’s not the problem. Parents are. Not all, but definitely many.

I’m not including Harrison here because I don’t know him other than the guy who even at age 37 can still get after a quarterback. But the culture that is youth sports is filled with moms and dads who heap upon their children an elaborate sense of self-worth from a young age.

Instead of teaching young athletes to be humble in victory and gracious in defeat, parents become obsessed with the pursuit of college scholarships and professional contracts.

And that’s just during the T-ball years.

That young Jimmy can be handed a participation trophy after his U-6 soccer season ends and have his face light up like his father’s might when stumbling onto a Miss Tropicana pageant doesn’t mean the kid is going to be an unbearable mess by the time he hits the third grade. Not if those guiding him at home and on the field remain consistent in a sensible, team-first approach.

A trophy isn’t about celebrating mediocrity, as many have suggested the past few days, but instead encouraging youth to be involved in athletics, to promote a healthy lifestyle, to celebrate them moving from the couch and another video game to the fields of competition.

Maybe a kid receives a trophy and it motivates him to keep playing. What’s wrong with that? A generation of couch potatoes is less one spud.

Do you realize how screwed up youth sports are today in ways far more serious than participation trophies?

Fact: A girls softball team from Washington state this week actually lost a game on purpose at the Little League World Series — benching its best players, bunting with two strikes, swinging at pitches in the dirt — to force a three-way tie in the U.S. bracket that would have eliminated a powerful team from Iowa.

Thankfully, officials caught on and the team from Iowa was allowed to play on.

Adults teaching kids to lose on purpose.

And people are up in arms about a trophy?

Harrison has a great story. He was a walk-on at Kent State, signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent and made himself into a two-time Super Bowl champion. I get that he wants his sons to have such a work ethic and not expect anything to be handed to them.

I also would argue they earned those participation trophies by, well, participating.

And the world wouldn’t end if they kept them.

It’s a trophy, destined one day to be boxed up and discarded with other parts of our lives. Not everything has to produce some grand lesson about how youth sports has delivered society far too many self-obsessed, egotistical kids.

Sometimes, it’s just not that big a deal.

Trophies aren’t the problem. Not even close.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. Follow him: @edgraney.