A Trophy Earned

Summer vacation has come to a close and soon things will be getting quite busy around town.  In the coming weeks posts will be emerging on girls participation in youth sports and a profile of one Maine kid heading to his first professional training camp but today I respond to an article in the BDN that really chapped my hide and got these old fingers a typing.

In the August 26th edition of the Bangor Daily News, Sarah Smiley weighed  in on participation trophies with a number of uniformed, contradictory, hypocritical and dangerous ideas.

She cites Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebacker James Harrison as her inspiration.  Harrison recently returned his kids participation trophies as they “did nothing to earn them” and posted his bold move on instagram.  While James Harrison’s rise from undrafted rookie out of Kent State to Pro-Bowl linebacker is inspirational this is also a guy who was suspended from his High School team on numerous occasions, shot a bb gun at a coach and was arrested for a domestic violence incident in 2009.  Maybe not the best parental role model.

Summarizing her support for Harrison’s thoughts on trophies if not his persona, Smiley states, “In real-life competition, there is one winner and a bunch of losers.”

No.  No.  No.

First, youth sports are ‘real-life’.  They are the reality of the kids that play them, the coaches who instruct them, the parents who get them there and back, the organizations that support them and the billion-dollar business that profit from them.  The myth of some future where ‘real-life’ happens is an unexplained one.  Is sitting in an office tapping away at data points ‘real-life’?  Is floating in space ‘real-life’? Is playing professional football ‘real-life’? Yes.  It’s all life.  It’s all real.

Okay, so companies don’t hand out trophies to everyone at the end of a good quarter.  But they do give them paychecks and bonuses.  They give you a gold watch when you retire and honorariums when you make a large donation to the local university.  When you go to a conference they load you up with swag – from free pens to fine jewelry.  All of this stuff is a result of participation not victory.  Do we only give service ribbons and purple hearts to soldiers who participated in a victorious war?  Are special Olympians losers because they can’t compete with the able bodied?  Sarah Smiley probably should have thought this through a bit more.

Further, there is never one winner.  At the highest levels of sports, athletes like Serena Williams or Jordan Spieth have vast armies of supporters, family, coaches, trainers and business advisers.  There might be one name on the trophy but these people know well enough to thank everyone they can for their support, aid, and guidance.  Every Oscar and Hall of Fame Speech EVER drags on with the number of people that have to be thanked because no one does anything of note alone.

Finally, I’ll thank my lucky stars I’m not one of Sarah Smiley’s kids walking off the court or the field or leaving the ice and getting my mom in my face telling me I’m a loser because my team didn’t win or another kid was faster than me or my bike broke.  You think giving a kid a trophy for doing his or her best will be detrimental to their self-esteem?  How about being told they’re a loser all the time?  Yeah, that should do wonders for little egos.

I’ve been told that Smiley does not yell in her kids faces and call them losers.  But by writing the words she did, she encourages those parents who do.

Smiley calls participation trophies empty.  Of course they are.  All trophies are empty.  To quote Lightning McQueen after giving up his chance at a championship to help a fellow competitor, “Ah, it’s just an empty cup.”


A few trophies old and new-all earned.

A few trophies old and new.  All earned.

All trophies are objects without inherent meaning.  We give them meaning based on our views of them and the portion of our lives we associate with them.

I’ve been a part of two very focused, intense and, at-times, all consuming sports in my life.  As a youth in Texas, I played football which ranks slightly in front of God and bar-b-queue in importance down there.  This was the late-70’s and early-80’s.  We’d do two-a-days in 100 degree heat without water breaks.  We did the Oklahoma drill where we bashed our little brains out against each other and thought it was funny.  If we got hurt we walked it off.  You know what we got at the end of the season banquet with our plate of brisket and some potato salad?  A trophy.  I still have mine.  They’re mostly broken and ignored but they meant something.  Still do.  They mean I busted my ass all season long.  They mean I was part of a team that did it’s very best.  And the one league championship trophy among them, it wasn’t that we tried any harder that year.  It was because a kid named Kyle Roher, who would go on to play at Texas A&M, moved to League City and no one could catch Kyle once he turned the corner.

Currently my kids play hockey with the Maine Jr. Black Bears and if there’s one sport obsessed with a trophy it’s hockey.  Every kid dreams of hoisting the Stanley Cup and for so long, so many have let that obsession consume them to a detrimental point.  Under the guidance of Maine Amateur Hockey Association (MEAHA) and USA Hockey most organizations have worked tirelessly to promote participation and effort over wins and losses.  USA Hockey has conducted numerous studies showing that building the game with a long term outlook rather than short-sited single result goals will produce more people playing the game at all levels, from kids first putting on skates to Olympic Teams to old timers on Monday nights.  The effort to change the hearts and minds of many parents who, no doubt, agree with Smiley, is an ongoing one but the results have been irrefutable.  In numbers and percentage, there are more Americans playing hockey at the highest levels than ever before and more kids enjoying the game, trophies or no.

MJBB does not give out organizational participation trophies but many individual coaches opt to do so.  We bought our kids some little trophies last season not to make them feel better about themselves but to remember a season and a team that grew by leaps and bounds and never gave up.  It’s a key to a memory of their achievements not their only achievement.

None of these groups have taken championship trophies from tournaments or seasons out of the mix, nor should they.  There is value to setting a goal and achieving it. There is joy in First Place but there is real danger in valuing the gold medal as the only worthy outcome.  It makes the trophy more important than the joy of sport.  It makes a sham of self-esteem because it wraps too much of a life in it.  Let us not forget what happened to Sauron and Voldemort.  They placed all of their power in a small number of objects or trophies and when these objects where acquired by a hobbit or young wizard who did not place the greatest value on their possession, they were rendered powerless and soon destroyed.

My hope is that Sarah Smiley and those who share her views will see the deep flaws in their thinking.  By eliminating all other achievements as possibilities for praise they open the floodgates of cheating and corruption that have destroyed the lives and careers of people like Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Marion Jones, Mark Maguire, Roger Clemens and the millions of youth whose lives have been lost or crippled by steroids, scandal, overwork or simply not being given a chance because a coach, in pursuit of a trophy, never let the player leave the bench.

If, however, the minds of Mrs. Smiley and Mr. Harrison are not changed by deeper thought, then let them live by their own rules.  James Harrison should give back the millions of dollars he earned during those years his team did not win the Super Bowl.  And Mrs. Smiley should delete every column she has ever written and give back any money earned in a non-Public Spirit Award winning year.  Because, according to them, in those years, they were both were losers.

Travis Baker

About Travis Baker

Travis Baker grew up playing baseball, basketball, football and soccer. There was a brief stint with karate and a briefer one with fencing but he would not return to the glory days of youth sport until he moved to Maine and had a couple of boys, Zane (11) and August (7), of his own. Inspired by his lads, he learned to play hockey at the age of 35 and now plays every Monday night in Brewer. Thanks to a number of former students, he’s learned a wee bit about lacrosse, field hockey and track and field. When not helping out in his kid’s activities, is the award-winning playwright of One Blue Tarp and Hair Frenzy, both of which premiered at the Penobscot Theatre Company in Bangor. Travis is the author of Night and the Texas Sky, and numerous short stories and essays. He is married to the founder of Maine Yoga Adventures, Holly Twining. Currently, he coaches hockey, baseball and serves on the board of the Maine Junior Black Bears as the PR Director.