Editor’s Note: Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has worked as a producer and as a reporter at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She was named a 2010 Woman of the Year by Women in Sports and Events. Jones is a co-author of “Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete” and CEO of the Push Marketing Group. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison has come out against participation trophies
Roxanne Jones: Teach kids to work for their rewards in life, because showing up is not enough
My son never played T-ball. And I absolutely refused to sign him up for the 6-and-under soccer and football leagues. All those kids running around like maniacs decked out in the latest sports gear, with lunatic parents screaming like they were at the Super Bowl, and well-meaning but confused volunteer coaches who know nothing about teaching skilled positions and even less about safety on the field.
The worst part of it all was that the Tiny Tots sports league coaches didn’t even keep score. That’s right. Nobody ever lost a game. The hair-brained philosophy in my quickly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood was to teach children that in sports, “everyone is a winner, a champion.”
Any parent who even mentioned the “L” word aloud was nearly banned from the games. And at the end of the season, each child went home with a [garbage] trophy and bragging rights about their athletic feats. And they hadn’t even won one game. There was no way my son was going to be a part of that farce.
So I am glad to hear that Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison has come out against meaningless awards. Over the weekend, he revealed to his fans that he was returning the two sports “participation trophies” his sons, 8 and 6 years old, received for simply being on the team:
“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy. #harrisonfamilyvalues”
Harrison’s decision was spot on. What a crock it is to give out participation trophies.
I get it. It may be more comfortable to tell our children that, “trying your best is all that matters.” But we adults know this to be a lie. How exactly does this lie best prepare our children for the harsh realities of life?
Trying our best will never guaranteed that we get the dream job, the big promotion or even the happily-ever-after marriage. We understand through painful experiences that often our best is just not good enough to get what we imagine we deserve.
Indeed, the biggest lesson sports teaches us is how to face defeat and still return another day to try and improve your game until one day you can put yourself and your team in a position to win. You learn that losing hurts – even in T-ball - but it is an essential part of living a meaningful life.
We should teach kids to work for their rewards in life, because showing up is not enough to earn praise.
It’s refreshing to hear that from a professional athlete. Harrison, now 37, learned that during his long road to an NFL career. He walked on to his college team at Kent State, went undrafted in 2002 but did play in NFL Europe for a season. He was cut by his first NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens, before signing with Pittsburgh. And this preseason, Harrison finds himself fighting for a starting position.
Harrison is a man who understands just how difficult it is to win at life. And he knows that not every kid – no matter how hard he tries – will turn out to be the next LeBron.
All this trophy chasing is dangerous for athletes, said former Major League pitcher John Smoltz, who had wise words for parents when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame recently. Smoltz, the first pitcher in the Hall of Fame to have returned from Tommy John surgery, warned parents not to push young athletes too hard early on.
“I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 and 15 years old. That you have time, that baseball is not a year-round sport. That you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports. Don’t let the institutions that are out there running before you guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses [tell you] that this is the way….”
Explore the game, Smoltz said, have fun. In other words don’t just focus on chasing trophies or you’ll miss out on best parts of the game. Lose a little and enjoy the ride.