James Harrison on Participation Trophies

James Harrison is one of the best linebackers (if not the best) currently playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Nobody is questioning that. However, while it isn’t quite time for the 2015 NFL season to begin just yet, Harrison’s name has been plastered all over the news for the past couple of days. Not because of anything he’s done as a player, but because of his stance on participation trophies. If you haven’t read the full story, let us give you a brief recap. Harrison’s two very young sons (one is 6, the other 8) received participation trophies for their efforts as student athletes. He took them away and had returned them by Sunday. He also wrote the following post on Instagram:


Harrison’s post received a lot of support. In fact, nearly everyone who commented on his post agreed that participation trophies should not be given. One user called them “an epidemic.” Another user not only agreed, but said that she would not let her daughter make up answers on tests when given the opportunity. Of course, others were not so understanding of Harrison’s position. One user even went so far as to more or less accuse Harrison of lying about how much he encourages his children, saying that “if you encourage your children until the day they die, you wouldn’t take these trophies back.”

This isn’t something we’d usually cover, since the only real relation to pro sports is the involvement of James Harrison. Besides, we would assume (hope?) that you aren’t betting on your children’s athletic events. Nonetheless, we’re certain that a number of our clients must have kids, and probably have some opinions on the issue of participation trophies. So we’d like to talk a bit about the issue and the arguments on each side. We’ll also talk a bit about Harrison himself, and whether or not his opinion on this matter should weigh too heavily on the issue based on his own record of achievement. If you have your own opinions regarding participation trophies, feel free to share them in the comments below.

Support for Participation Trophies

Harrison doesn’t support participation trophies, but he certainly loves his kids. (Jeff Swensen/The New York Times)

Harrison doesn’t support participation trophies, but he certainly loves his kids. (Jeff Swensen/The New York Times)

We’ll start with the arguments in favor of giving children participation trophies, since this seems to be the less popular theory among those commenting on the James Harrison story. SB Nation contributor Jon Bois dissected the issue pretty thoroughly, and made several incredibly valid points. His article is worth reading, but his main points can be summarized as follows:

1) Kids should be given the benefit of self-appreciation while they’re still young enough to enjoy it.
2) Kids are smart enough to realize that participation trophies aren’t actually “rewarding” them for anything.
3) A child’s self-worth should not be quantified.
4) Some of this issue’s detractors have strange, unnecessarily harsh views toward children.

His last point is the least solid, but he admits that in his article. He even says that it “isn’t really a point” and that he just “wanted to say it in big letters.” But his other points are very sound. Children know that they haven’t accomplished anything by participating, but that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy the game and have a souvenir to take home at the end of it. Life can seem an awful lot like a competition when you’re older. Not just in sports, but in all facets of living. Want to get married? Better hope no one wealthier or more attractive is gunning for the same partner. Want a good job? Better hope no one else is more qualified. Even highway driving can feel competitive at times, regardless of whether or not you’re going anywhere important.

The point is that we have to compete for just about everything good in life, and no one who’s arguing in favor of participation trophies is really questioning that. Kids will realize this unfortunate reality when they get to the age at which they actually need to realize it. Unless we’re living in ancient Sparta, is it really so bad to just let them be kids for a while? And if you’re one of the people that Bois accuses of potentially hating children, then you can at least reward the kid for doing something that gets them out of their parents’ hair for a few hours after school each day.

His second point is also an important argument against those who think that participation trophies are making kids soft. When I was in fourth grade, I played on my local rec center’s basketball team. We lost just about every game. Heck, I’m not even sure if we ever won a game. But sure enough, we were all given participation trophies. Even me, despite the fact that my team was actually way better when I was on the bench.

A similar thing had happened a couple of years earlier, when all of the local elementary schools were invited to a faux Olympic event at the local university. We could participate in ten speed events, or ten strength events. Dozens of kids competed, but I won one gold medal, one bronze, and eight silver. Why? Because most of those dozens of kids were doing the speed events. Only two others were doing the strength events. I may have been ranked, but those medals were a lot like participation trophies. And while I did wear every single one of them to the IHOP afterward, it felt like a lie. I knew that I hadn’t really earned them. But they were reminders of a pretty fun day.

The reason I bring up my own experiences is that I never thought I was going to be a basketball star, and I knew I was never going to be an Olympic athlete. I did those things because they were fun. And since I knew that I was never going to go pro or even participate at the collegiate level, my participation trophies and medals were the only remnants of those fun times that I was ever going to have. Many kids feel the same way. More likely is that they really don’t know if they’re going to go pro or not, even if they think right now that they may want to. But sports were still a part of their lives, and they’re entitled to remember it. Besides, kids are kids. They lose things. They probably won’t even have that trophy in a few years, and then you’ll have nothing to complain about.

Criticisms of Participation Trophies

It’s just too easy to find pictures of Harrison looking skeptical. (Robin Rombach/Post-Gazette)

It’s just too easy to find pictures of Harrison looking skeptical. (Robin Rombach/Post-Gazette)

Interestingly enough, one of the best articles we could find on the criticisms against participation trophies comes from a pro-trophy mother. The Daily Beast’s Brandy Zadrozny does not use the same list-based format as the SB Nation article referenced above, but between her article and the hundreds of supportive comments that James Harrison has received, we can still glean a few basic points:

1) Things in life must be earned, a lesson participation trophies fail to teach.
2) Participation trophies cheapen the experience for the kids who actually won.
3) Participation trophies are a form of entitlement.
4) Those who support participation trophies are making kids soft, and society doesn’t need that right now.

There’s also another argument, which comes not from Zadrozny but from sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman, who she interviewed for her article. According to Friedman, participation trophies even cheapen the experience for the kids who didn’t win. “The first trophy means something, even if it’s just a participation trophy,” says Friedman. “It’s very exciting, and all the kids I studied remembered the circumstances from the first trophy they got. But very quickly, these participation trophies lose their meaning unless it’s for a really big win.” In fact, Friedman goes on to say that participation trophies do not encourage self-worth, but actually diminish it by failing to instill real values in our children.

Of the above points, the issues with entitlement and with making kids soft are probably the most major sticking points for those who disagree with the practice of giving participation trophies. When we stated above that kids should be entitled to remember the time they spent on the team, we were fully aware that some readers would probably cringe at that word. You really don’t have to look at sports to see the problem with entitlement. Some parents give their children everything they ask for, and those children are likely the ones throwing screaming fits in restaurants and grocery stores because of the one time they couldn’t get what they wanted. If a child is used to getting a trophy whether they win or lose, then how are they supposed to react if they don’t get one later in life?

We’re not just talking about a culture of entitlement; we’re talking about the probable creation of a generation of sore losers. Allow me to bore you with another story about my childhood basketball team. When I was little, I was incredibly husky. So the only thing I was really good at was drawing fouls, because it was almost impossible not to hit me if I was nearby. Which meant that if I tried to draw a foul and it wasn’t called, I became irate. This particular issue does not pertain to me getting a trophy, but it still concerns entitlement. I was used to getting what I wanted, so I simply didn’t understand why my wants would ever be denied.

I also thought I was better than I was. When I mentioned the pseudo-Olympic event in which I participated, I mentioned that I received one gold medal. Now, since there were only three of us, the odds of getting that gold medal were pretty much in my favor. And I found myself with two very different opinions about that fact, neither of which were healthy. The first was that it really was cheapened by those other medals, since I didn’t do too much more to earn the gold than I did to earn the bronze. The second was that I was the most awesome kid to ever try the weighted sled pull. Those stupid medals enabled me to feel both arrogant and cheap at the very same time.

Those medals weren’t around for long. They were left at the bottom of the closet for months before disappearing into the garage. That might not have happened if they had felt like real achievements. And if they had been real achievements, there’s no telling what may have followed them. I won because I was trying to sprint with those weights on, even though we weren’t supposed to. It was easy because, again, I was a husky child. My brother’s football coaches were scouting me as soon as they learned of my existence. And I probably would have played if I hadn’t broken my left femur at the growth plate when I was 12, after which my surgeon told me that I couldn’t play sports again. But I was already leaning away from athletics by then. Why wouldn’t I? Everything I won had been handed to me. I had no idea how good it might feel to actually achieve something. That feeling is what participation trophies are stealing from our kids.

Examining James Harrison’s Career

Harrison is an imposing force on the field. He’s definitely his reputation, but has he earned the right to be the voice of this issue? (Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports)

Harrison is an imposing force on the field. He’s definitely his reputation, but has he earned the right to be the voice of this issue? (Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports)

The arguments both for and against participation trophies could be said to hold equal weight. We won’t try to sway you into feeling one way or the other, because the odds are that your mind is pretty much made up. We would, however, like to discuss James Harrison. He was the one who brought this issue to the forefront of the public consciousness, so it only stands to reason that we would examine his own achievements to see where his viewpoint might be coming from.

ESPN’s write-up of the James Harrison story explains it pretty well. He was a walk-on junior with the Kent State Golden Flashes. Despite the fact that he wasn’t actively recruited, he earned his position as a starter by achieving more than 100 tackles during his junior year, more than a dozen of which were for a loss. Since he wasn’t drafted in 2002 due to his height, and the Steelers couldn’t seem to decide whether or not they wanted him on their practice squad, he eventually decided to prove himself to the Baltimore Ravens by playing with NFL Europe’s Rhein Fire for a season. The Ravens didn’t keep him on, so he went back to the Steelers. He finally improved enough that they decided to keep him on.

Harrison continued to prove himself over the years. He had a long and established career, with the second-most sacks in franchise history at the time of his retirement. But his retirement was short-lived, and he re-joined the Steelers for another year in 2014. He then signed a two-year extension this year for $2.65 with a signing bonus of $500,000. He is currently 37, and will be close to forty by the time his contract has run out. He could easily retire if he wanted, but he’s decided to stay in the game.

There is no doubt that Harrison has earned a lot in his career. In fact, we could only find one commenter on one article about Harrison’s view toward participation trophies who appeared to disagree. The person in question suggested that Harrison should have returned a portion of his salary for his performance at the 2015 AFC Wild Card Playoffs. As much of a powerhouse as Harrison may be, he wasn’t able to put on the necessary pressure to keep the Ravens from taking a 30-17 win against the Steelers in that game.

This may not seem relevant to participation trophies, but the user’s sentiment was clear. If a child doesn’t deserve a $10 trophy for participating on a losing team, then why should Harrison receive millions of dollars for participating on a team that only barely glimpsed the playoffs? It’s not really the same issue, but it certainly complicates the debate a little bit. After all, the Steelers still posted a winning record, so it’s not like Harrison’s participation was for nothing. But even if they had posted a losing record, he would still get paid. Children don’t have that option. If anything, the parents are paying for their children just to have the opportunity to participate.

We’d love to hear your take on these issues in the comments. Do children deserve participation trophies, even if they lose? Does a well-paid player have the right to criticize the practice of giving participation trophies when his salary has gone up following a playoff performance that some have highly criticized? Again, there are merits to all sides. We hope that you’ll participate by sharing yours.