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The NPR Ed Mailbag: The Participation Trophy

LA Johnson/ NPR

On Saturday, for our series on learning and play, I reported a story for Weekend Edition exploring this question: Should kids get a trophy for participating in organized sports? Well, it touched a nerve: comments, tweets and emails poured in — hundreds of them. So many that we thought it worth sharing a few. Here goes.


Let me start by saying ... you all are a tough crowd. Much to my surprise, the responses came down overwhelmingly against participation trophies or, as some of you took to calling them, "everybody trophies." The reasons were legion.

From the comments section came this, courtesy of "Joseph":

"This is killing our sense of competition. Everyone doesn't have to finish first. Sometimes losing helps us get better so that next time we can win. Children need to learn this lesson if they are to become productive members of our society."

"Steve Orth" unearthed this gem from The Andy Griffith Show, in which Opie loses a race and, after complaining, "They don't give you no medal for tryin'," gets scolded by Griffith for being a sore loser. Orth wrote simply "Oh, how the times have changed."

"Misses Antilles" offered this very personal argument against:

"When I was a kid I was clumsy, awkward, and terrible at organized sports. On our school's 'Olympic Day' every year, I never won a medal, and had to face the shame of getting up in front of my whole school to claim my 'Participation Ribbon.' It was NOT an honor, it was a public humiliation."

Many responders shared the concern of Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck — that rewarding kids for showing up can create feelings of entitlement. This comment, from "vtbikerider," captures that thread of the argument:

"I've taught now for over 20+ years and the only times I've truly had a conflict with a student go unresolved was over similar issues. One student thought that simply by turning his work he should get an 'A' because that is what he expected. Not the quality of the work — but the fact that he did it. He was a 10th grader. When I gave him a 'C' for an average piece of work, he actually transferred schools at the end of the year. I was flabbergasted when his mother told me that my grading was one of the reasons. He believed himself to be brilliant and I was hampering him."

And then there's the argument I didn't see coming, courtesy of "spreng2":

"I HATE plastic trophies for participation! I look at them and just multiply by 7 billion and then by each year of soccer, and I try to imagine the landfill that will be capable of holding them all. How about something that is compostable, like a fancy sheet of paper? Stop the plastic deluge!"


While the camp in favor of participation trophies lost the battle in terms of sheer volume, they still offered a remarkable variety of arguments. This comment, from "Yahmule," captures a common sentiment:

"People who oppose participation trophies seem to have a very low opinion of the emotional intelligence of the average child. Guess what, no kid who ever got a participation trophy ever confused his/her modest award to the prizes and attention earned by the team MVP. It's simply something to commemorate their time as part of a team."

It's a left hook to the entitlement argument. In short, kids aren't dumb. They know the difference between what the winner gets and what everyone else gets.

"Mike Labare" wrote in with this memory of getting — and then not getting — a participation trophy:

"I got one trophy the first year I played hockey as a lad. From then on only the most valuable offensive and defensive players received trophies. We were also champions multiple times. It would have been nice to receive a token that acknowledged the contributions of the rest of the team. After all even the most valuable players can not win alone. If we look to the professionals, the team gets the trophy, the MVP gets a trophy but everybody gets a ring."

While there was plenty of snark peppered among the arguments on both sides, I'm partial to this little bit of snark-as-argument from "h k":

"Giving an award to a person who hasn't really done anything to earn it? Sure why not? Adults do it."

The Ghost Of Vince Lombardi

But my favorite note came in response to the companion story I reported, on when kids first start playing to win. In that piece, I invoked Vince Lombardi, the great Green Bay Packers coach, who famously said:

"Winning isn't everything, but it's the only thing. In our business, there is no second place."

I used the line because it captures the spirit of our win-obsessed culture and makes clear the challenges adults face in trying to get kids to focus not on winning but on working hard. At the end of the story, I revealed another Lombardi quote that suggests he wasn't win-obsessed at all but firmly in the hard work camp.

Well, direct from the you-never-know-who's-listening department came this email from Lombardi's nephew, Steve Werner:

"I was very happy that you pointed out at the end of the story that as tough and demanding as my uncle could be, his quote about 'Winning isn't everything, it is the only thing' has been misunderstood. I was getting very upset with how some of the children's psychology experts were criticizing my uncle without knowing that he explained many times, that when you try your best all the time in every endeavor that you are a winner.

"I saw firsthand when I was young and my uncle was coaching the Green Bay Packers that he was very encouraging to the players in defeat when he knew that they gave all that they had. He was also very harsh with players when they won but in his judgment, they hadn't given their best. My uncle was also very clear that you played by the rules and didn't win by bending the rules. I get upset when people who didn't understand my uncle's goal for everyone to try their best think that he would be tough for toughness sake instead of making his players the best that they could be.

"BTW, my uncle was the oldest sibling and my mother was the next oldest and my uncle could be tough on nephews and nieces when he learned that we weren't working as hard in school as we were capable of!"

Having to show a lackluster report card to Mom or Dad is one thing. Imagine having to show it to Uncle Vin.

Thanks to all of you who wrote in. The mailbag runneth over, which is just the way we like it.

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Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.