Everyone gets a trophy. So what?


Dan Patrick (former ESPN guy!) was complaining this morning about the fact that, nowadays, when kids compete in sports, they all get trophies and orange slices. Like virtually everyone else, Patrick thinks this is a bad thing – the trophies particularly – because kids don’t learn the important lessons of competition and failing. All of this is connected to a larger narrative about how “molly-coddled” – to use a favorite expression of Keith Jackson – kids are today. And – it often goes without saying – this indulgence is directly connected to the downfall of our culture.

It would be nice if someone defined what exactly that downfall looked like in non-circular terms. You can’t say that the proof that our civilization is in decline as evidenced by giving everybody trophies is that everyone is getting trophies.

There have been lots of changes in American life since I was a kid. One very dramatic change has been the fall in crime rates, especially violent crime rates. The New York City of my youth really was a war zone. There were consistently in the neighborhood of two thousand murders per year in the city in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1990, there were 2,600. That figure started dropping steadily, and then fell through the floor. In 2012, there were barely over 400. There might be fewer this year. It’s an incredible change.

The cause of this extraordinary drop has been intensively debated. Some credit Giuliani and “broken windows.” Some the end of the crack epidemic. The economist Steve Leavitt famously identified ROE V. WADE  as the cause. Lead abatement has been a popular theory recently. Though New York is especially notable, because it was once the essence of a scary big city and now is one of the very safest in the United States, crime has been dropping dramatically almost everywhere.

This is, of course, only one measure of decline (or its opposite). And one can say that, as with interceptions, I am relying way too much on one stat to make a point. But if we are going to talk about how bad indiscriminate trophy-giving is, we should at least try to connect it to something. I know – lots of teens are taking selfies in which they are scantily clad. Sorry if I am not more upset by that civilization-rattling development.

I do think that lots has gone wrong in America in recent years, starting with the explosion in inequality that has become among the defining features of our country. But how does giving kids 15th place trophies explain that? OK, obesity is a problem. But how’s that connected to rewarding kids for effort in exercise? The nature of work, family life and poverty – not to mention evermore aggressive and successful marketing by big business is probably closer to the mark.

Presumably, there is less respect for authority nowadays. In fact, though, that’s most obvious among wealthy and well-connected political elites, who appear to live by a different set of rules than the rest of us. Again, I don’t see a story whereby trophy promiscuity explains that.

Contrary to the premise of Patrick’s complaint (and I am only picking on DP because I heard him go off about this this morning. It’s a nearly universal lament among sports talking heads), I don’t think the tenth place trophy makes kids feel especially good about themselves, or disincentivizes trying harder. Either they care about losing or they don’t. I was in bowling leagues when I was a kid (and, I should say, I was a pretty good bowler in my day). I won my fair share of individual and team trophies for league championships and such. One year, in a league I participated in as part of a high school gym class, I was on a team that finished 23rd out of 30, or something. We got a trophy. This was roughly 1981 (another small instance of the typically ahistorical nature of the kids today lament). And I can tell you – it didn’t make me or anyone else on my team want to pat ourselves on the back. We knew we stunk. The 23rd place etching on the bottom of the trophy only reminded us of that fact. And I do not believe that when kids today receive a similar trophy, they feel any differently. No one’s walking off with a statue-shaped reminder about finishing in the lower half of the league thinking they just set the world on fire.

Not that it would be the end of the world if they did, because I don’t think that would somehow lead kids to conclude that they don’t have to compete or work hard to make it in this world.

Here’s a fact – the job market for graduating college kids today is perhaps harder than it’s ever been. Another fact – the competition to get into good colleges has never been more fierce. We’re not suffering because younger generations are too complacent about how challenging the world is. Believe me, unless they come from the ever shrinking pool of truly privileged, they know.

So find something else to whine about. Handing out too many trophies is far down the list of things that are bringing our society down.

Update: Via Paul Waldman, check out this John Oliver clip from the Daily Show.



  1. It depends on where you’re coming from as the trophy-giver, presumably the parents. Some parents would rather pretend their child is amazing than actually help them to be better people. And I’m not talking about kids that ARE good kids. I’m talking about the ones who are coddled/spoiled/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. It’s this same mentality that causes parents to let their teenage daughter run around with guys in the back alley (figuratively speaking), pretending she’s an angel, and then announce their shock when she ends up pregnant. It’s called DENIAL. And that’s what the un-earned trophies represent.

    1. Jill,

      Thanks for sharing the link. Not much here, though. As I said in the post, I very much doubt anyone is or isn’t motivated in life on the basis of whether they receive a participation trophy. For reasons I discuss, life in America is, in fact, harder and more uncertain for many, many Americans than was the case a generation ago.

      1. Actually I realize the article is light on info. What I encourage you to do is get access to this special that was aired on HBO. Research is showing the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality may be creating apathy in our kids. Watch the videos on the links, they are short previews. Here is the one that got me thinking: https://youtu.be/aLIB8Czh1J4. Worth a gander when you have time. Then let’s chat!

  2. Thanks, Jill. Will take a look. I’ll confess skepticism at the premise, though. For example, the college admissions process is more insane than ever (by a long shot), requiring kids to study longer hours, do more test prep, stack their resumes with ever more extra curriculars and so on, just to get into schools that, when I was heading off to college, no one took seriously. Whatever else one can say about that process, apathy is not a good description.

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