I’m Sorry, James Harrison, But It’s Possible to Get Participation Trophies and Still Not Feel Entitled

I admire the hard work James Harrison put in to make himself one of the top linebackers in the NFL despite not being drafted out of Kent State. It takes more than a little drive to make it at the highest level of any sport, and even more to do so absent the benefit of a big contract or a pedigree. In that, I believe Harrison has got me beat. I can’t say that the fire in my belly burns quite that hot; his could melt steel.

In regard to his most recent crusade, however, I can’t quite get behind him. As you’ve probably heard by now, the Steelers LB caused quite a kerfuffle when he took to Instagram to decry his sons’ reception of two participation trophies from a sports league they had been a part of. I’m sure what particular sport these trophies are tied to, only that they are labeled: “2015 Best of the Batch Next Level Athletics Student-Athlete Awards.”

No shrinking violet when it comes to sharing his thoughts, controversial and inflammatory as they may sometimes be, Harrison minced no words in his recent social media post.

A big part of me gets where Harrison is coming from here. I’m not big on entitlement and it’s clear that’s what he’s driving at here. I’d expect no less from a guy who had to walk on to the football team and Kent State and then played in NFL Europe and was cut by the Baltimore Ravens prior to getting his shot with the Steelers. This is a dude who scrapped and clawed for everything, and that mentality shows out in his play on the field.

Ah, but therein lies a bit of the rub. Harrison has been repeatedly fined and suspended for play that oversteps the bounds of what the NFL deems appropriate. I’m sure Dick “Night Train” Lane rolls over in his grave at the thought of a guy being punished for a hard hit. And you have to wonder what Jack Lambert or Dick Butkus would do if the commissioner told them to tone down their attitude and aggressiveness.

But this isn’t about Harrison’s play on the field, it’s about his role as a father. I don’t want to spend time here casting aspersions on his various life choices, though I’ve got reason to call into question his domestic relationships. And he’s not always been a model parent either. I present those links not to undermine the man, but rather, to provide context for the topic at hand as it relates to someone who’s got a bit more of an edge than I do.

I must admit that a younger me would have been more supportive of Harrison’s actions when it came to those trophies. As I said, the sense of entitlement that I see from time to time drives me crazy and seeing my kids develop that same mentality is the last thing I want. But is getting a trophy from a sports league at a young age really going to set them down a path of moral turpitude or dubious values?

If I find out that my 6-year-old son was overheard using the word “shit” at school, do I blame Joss Whedon or Adam McKay, maybe even Avi Arad and the rest of the bigwigs at Marvel, for adding the word to his vocabulary? Of course not. I’m certainly no saint when it comes to language, but I do keep it clean in my home. Still, I’m the one who takes him to see those movies and it falls on me as a parent to provide a true north for my child’s compass.

When it comes to trophies, I feel much the same way. It’s easy to fall back to the ubiquitous “Well, in my day” justification for things, to lament the handing out of participation trophies as some sign of the erosion of our society’s sense of pride and hard work. But as I’ve grown and learned, I’m starting to think that hackneyed view is just as lazy as the supposed entitlement it decries.

Take my daughter, for instance. I’ve written about her a few times before, notably in regard to some of her congenital issues. It’s possible that as Addison Grace grows, she’ll come into more of her middle name; for now, however, she’s a little awkward and maybe a bit off-center. Then again, she’s still a week and change shy of her 9th birthday as of press time. So when she gets a trophy for being part of a basketball league run by a local church or has a medal hung around her neck for taking part in a soccer tournament, I don’t fret over it.

Addison’s got a nice little collection of small trophies littering the shelves in her room already, though I’m not sure if another will ever be added. Addison chose not to play basketball this summer and she won’t be playing soccer in the fall, choosing to try some dance classes and maybe get into art or music lessons as well. She may, however, get back into softball; we’ll see. In any case, those little trinkets now stand as tiny signposts of a journey that’s only getting started.

I suppose there’d be reason to worry if my daughter fawned over those trophies and demanded one after each season. Sure, she’s proud of the total she accumulated, but I never once heard her whine about not getting one for a tournament she missed due to illness. In fact, the only time I saw her upset was at the conclusion of her most recent soccer season, when the final whistle blew and she realized that she hadn’t scored a goal.

Primarily used as a defender, she simply hadn’t had many opportunities to do anything with the ball on her opponents’ end. So while it pained me to see my daughter so broken up over what she perceived as a personal failure, I drew a great deal of pride from that as well. She had had fun, but she was also concerned about her performance and about being competitive.

Likewise, my son has gotten some trophies from basketball, soccer, and baseball. In his first season of coach-pitch baseball, I would stand farther back and throw harder to him than I did for most of the other kids. I’d have him bat from both sides of the plate and wouldn’t take it as easy on him as I did the less experienced players. I would high-five Ryne after a play, but I celebrated like crazy when some of the little boys just made contact with the ball or knocked down a slow roller.

You see, it’s possible to celebrate both a child’s performance and participation without creating some kind of ethical quagmire and setting them up for a future driven by a poor work ethic. Did the little boy who showed up every day for baseball with a big smile that stayed on his face despite struggling mightily to hit the ball not “earn” a medal? How about the boy with speech issues who at first wouldn’t answer my questions but who eventually talked my ear off each game? Did he not earn it?

Admittedly, I’m coming from a slightly different background than that from which James Harrison emerged. I chose socializing over a spot on my college tennis team, Harrison fought through multiple dismissals to rise to the upper echelon of athletic achievement.

So perhaps his expectations for his kids vary from those I have for mine, but I’d hope that all we truly desire is for our kids to be happy, healthy, and productive. And to that end, I can guarantee you that the collection of participation trophies gathering dust in my kids’ rooms is the least of my worries when it comes to them being good people. My pride in my children will never be dictated by material things anyway, regardless of their origin.

If I’m doing my job as a father, I’m reasonable sure a few wood-and-plastic pats on the back aren’t going to undermine the example I set for my kids. Believe me, they’re getting enough competitiveness from their old man just from the backyard or even family game night to more than make up for its perceived lack in today’s world of youth sports. I get Harrison’s POV though; after all, the guy’s spent his entire adult life manufacturing a chip to put on his shoulder for motivation.

I can’t blame him for that, as it’s worked out pretty well for him thus far — from a professional standpoint, anyway. But I can’t abide by his choice to return his kids’ trophies either, as I can’t help seeing it as unnecessary transference of blame or a frivolous act of defiance. Wouldn’t it have been just as easy to go to the folks who operate Next Level Athletics and share his thoughts with them?I suppose he did just that, then used his status to share his thoughts on the topic to a wider audience.

That might be fine for James Harrison, who I sincerely hope has learned from his past mistakes and is doing as much as he can at home to raise children of high character and strong values. Perhaps I’m just a product of a world gone soft, but I can’t find enough indignation in my heart to get fired up about kids getting trophies they didn’t earn based solely on athletic achievement.

And now to bring this all around to fit the nature of my site, I think this topic is pretty well applicable to the situation the Cubs have been in over the past few years. There have been two sides to Cubdom in the Theo Epstein era, both arguing over the merits of the methods his regime has employed to built a successful franchise. One argues that only constant effort to be as competitive as possible is the way to go, while the other worries more about building a strong core and casting results a side for a while.

Many of us have sat by and watched the Cubs flail and flounder in an effort to accumulated picks and increase the fundamental soundness of the overall system. I don’t know about you, but that sounds a heck of a lot like watching my kids play their various sports. It’s not always fun in the moment, but it becomes quite impressive when you look back at all the growth they’ve experienced. We praise the effort in spite of the record, we give them an “atta boy” and a “you’ll do better next time.”

But just like youth sports, there does come a time when the results do start to matter. My kids will eventually get to the point where just showing up to the field won’t be good enough, though that time hasn’t yet come. The Cubs, on the other hand, appear to have reached that level. The stakes are higher and the expectations are not only present, they’re finally relevant as well. It’s all about timing, knowing when a pat on the back needs to become a push.

I’d love to stay and write even more on this topic, but I’ve got to get back to polishing up that county Spelling Bee trophy I earned a couple decades ago. After all, it’s got a ton of meaning and totally shaped my future and I’d hate to see it meet the exact same end as those trophies my kids have gotten.

Back to top button