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Why James Harrison (And All Parents) Should Stop Whining About Participation Trophies

The following was syndicated from The Sand Paper for The Fatherly Forum, a community of parents and influencers with insights about work, family, and life. If you’d like to join the Forum, drop us a line at

Recently, Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison made the news when he returned his kids’ participation trophies because they didn’t “earn” them.

Harrison is a dude who has earned everything in his life. According to ESPN, he was a college walk-on, proved his worth at Kent State, played for NFL Europe, was cut by the Ravens and finally found a home with the Steelers. Not to mention, he is 37 years old. There are a lot of 37-year-olds who can’t even get up for work on Tuesday when their team plays on the night before, much less play a Monday night NFL game.

With the photo of the two trophies on Instagram, Harrison posted: “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 you up and keep you happy.”

That’s a fair sentiment. He sounds like an engaged, genuine parent. And there are few things more annoying than parents who shower kids with accolades for minimal effort. But you know what’s even more annoying? The parents who are constantly spouting out about participation awards!

I was a kid before this supposed “Wussification Of America.” I distinctly remember getting participation awards.

We get your point. There is a generation of young adults today who feel that they are owed something. Yes, I seethe at laziness and entitlement, but there are lazy and entitled people of every generation. If you want to trade anecdotal evidence, talk to thel millennials who are working August double shifts right now and starting the fall semester.

I was a kid before this supposed “Wussification of America.” I distinctly remember getting participation awards. They were minor ribbons, patches, pins or plaques. The winners got actual trophies. We didn’t see these tokens as anything more than a keepsake of something we took part in, a memento from our childhood. Who the hell cares?

Fred Robel

Where I live on Long Beach Island in New Jersey, we have tons of community competitions each summer. From the Harvey Cedars Dog Day Race to the Jetty Coquina Jam to the Barnegat Bay Challenge Paddle – every competitor who signed up got a T-shirt. Should we go strip every runner, surfer and paddler of those shirts?

Do we need some cable news pundit screaming, “All they did was run five kilometers on a 90-degree day. They didn’t win. They didn’t earn that T-shirt!” Come on, they got something to remember a fun day. And if they want a trophy, they can work harder for next summer.

I feel like this movement has stemmed from certain political ideologies. It’s the whole “America is not a great country anymore because we are weak and we give participation awards.”

If your kids actually “cry and whine until somebody gives them something,” the problem might not be a plastic trophy.

Maybe don’t give 7-year-olds smartphones. Let them play in the neighborhood. There’s no award for tackle football in the snow. Let them stay outside and build, create, and get scars. The outdoors provide endless possibilities to get muddy and observe wildlife. And that will build character. Organized sports are great, but there might be more to life. And if your kids actually “cry and whine until somebody gives them something,” as was stated, the problem might not be a plastic trophy.

If you think this country is going downhill, it might have something to do with teaching kids that water comes from a pack of bottles at the store instead of the damn sink, all the pre-packaged experiences we give them, Wendy’s Hot and Juicy three-quarter–pound triple burger, or everyone driving their kid to school when the board of education provides this thing called a “bus.”

It might have something to do with corporations pushing plastic crap from China while taking their business overseas and sheltering profits from the same taxes you pay and buying politicians in both parties. It might have something to do with the fact that recreation is more technically structured now than a board meeting at Microsoft. It might have something to do with the fact that we’ve polluted the ocean to a point where the fishing, birding, clamming and crabbing aren’t what they used to be. And the people who are most responsible for that are the ones who perpetuate this whole “participation award” thing. It’s another case where the backlash is worse than the innocuous issue.

Big soda bans in NYC, TV Land pulling antiquated TV shows from the lineup over the Confederate flag, and the constant debates over political correctness are silly. But identifying these things as the root of our problems under some cloak of libertarianism is just asinine. Give it a rest with the stupid example of the participation trophy.

We get it. You’re a badass. Your kids are badasses. An NFL player, our modern-day messiah, actually went through the trouble of bringing the trophies back (to an inner-city sports group that works with groups that fund recreation for underprivileged kids.) Great … now, all sorts of annoying parents are going to start returning trophies to volunteer coaches and community rec organizers.

Yes. You all made your point. Now maybe go spend some time with your kid.

Jon Coen is a freelance writer and Jersey Shore lifer whose work has appeared in The Surfer’s Journal, ESPN, and The Red Bulletin. See more of his work here.