James Harrison, a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker, rattled the sports radio phone lines this week when he used Instagram to tell the world he was sending back his 6 and 8 year old sons' participation trophies because they hadn't earned them. In Harrison's eloquent words:
"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," Harrison said in a post on Instagram. "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."
In one breath Harrison talks about how proud he is of his boys, with the very next he puts a dollar store discount on the acknowledgment that they tried their best. His words struck a couple of chords with me. One, I am a father of 6 and 8 year old boys myself. The other, for the last several years I've coached our sons' various youth sports teams, all of whom handed out participation trophies. Before becoming a father and a coach of young people, I probably would have agreed with Harrison's post. Today, however, because of both of those roles, I couldn't disagree with him more. In small part for how much Harrison the football player seems to undervalue kids participating and trying their best, but largely for how much Harrison the father seems to regard trophies as a tool for raising boys to men.
After listening to some of the feedback to his post this week, I feel somewhat alone in my disagreement with him. For some reason his post stirred a lot of public response. A majority of it supported Harrison, taking the stance that participation trophies are somehow complicit in filling a Millennial generation with a sense of entitlement. You're kidding me, right? Do we really believe fifty cent trophies molded out of recycled plastic have that kind of power? Those who say yes will argue it's not about the trophy itself, it's what the trophy stands for.
And you are right my friends. It is all about what the trophy stands for, because the reality is trophies are nothing more than symbols.
Last night, the Upward football team I'm coaching this year had their first practice. My son Elliott is on the team, along with nine other 7 and 8-year-olds. One of the first things I did last night before we ever touched a football and without mentioning trophies, was start defining what the participation trophies they'll receive at the season's end will symbolize. I told them this season would entail working hard at every practice to become better football players, having a whole lot of fun together, learning how to treat everyone with respect, and above all, learning more about God and how much he loves us. (Upward is a Christ-centered sports league). If my fellow coaches and I do our jobs instilling those things in our players, and the parents reinforce those efforts throughout the season, then every single player holding a participation trophy at the end of the season will symbolize something far more than just another trophy.
Because I'm here to tell you, trophies don't mean nearly as much to our kids as Harrison and his supporters want to suggest they do. Whether they're participation trophies or state championship trophies. Our boys have a hand full of participation trophies that collect dust. They are long forgotten. What is not forgotten, though, is their coaches who poured their hearts, souls, and passion into building quality kids. They remember the high fives, the don't give ups, the we're all in this togethers. They can recall that encouragement out of their coaches, they thrive on it from their parents. The truth is, if at the end of the year a child receives a participation trophy and it somehow builds in him/her a sense of entitlement, that is reflective of the adults who were involved in that child's season, not the trophy. If on the other hand in receiving that trophy the child feels a sense of achievement, a little more confident about his ability to snag a touchdown pass or get along with a peer he just met, then that too is reflective of adults, not trophies.
And here is my other fear stirred by the depth and collective intensity of this James Harrison participation trophies discussion. Just how much of our children's self worth are we attaching to sports and trophies? If it's little, I would think this whole participation trophies discussion would have gone nowhere. I'm afraid that's not the case, though.
I've spent enough of my life chasing fame and notoriety and bloated feelings of accomplishment through sports and job promotions and boards of director titles - the trophies, nameplates, and seats at the heads of the tables that go with them - to know there is zero self worth to be found at the end of those chases. I am grateful that through those empty pursuits I've discovered that how I feel about myself - the entirety of it - is built on the understanding that God knows my name, and my name makes Him smile. Much more than my trophies - be them participation or a Super Bowl MVP trophy - God celebrates the gratitude I feel towards Him simply because he knows my name.
And so, more than helping the team I'm coaching this season understand just how much the trophies they'll receive at the end season will represent personal achievement for each and every one of them, and they will, I want to help them understand that trophy or not, God knows their name. And if they'll choose to sink all of their efforts into celebrating that one simple truth, there will be a participation trophy waiting at the end of their season of life that they'll proudly hoist above their heads for eternity.
Love this song and how much it joyfully expresses what it means to have your name in lights. The ultimate lights.