The truth about handing out trophies

David Fong TDN Columnist

David Fong TDN Columnist

If this column isn’t an award-winning piece of journalism, I may not get paid for writing it.

Well, at least that’s how it would be if James Harrison had his way.

Harrison is the linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers who recently made national headlines by setting off a parenting debate when he made his sons give back trophies they had received just for showing up and participating in sports. Apparently, every child who participated received a trophy — not just those who excelled or emerged as champions.

Far be it from me to tell James Harrison how to raise his children — and not just because he’s a heck of a lot bigger, stronger, faster and meaner than me. What he does with his kids and their trophies is his business.

What concerns me more is the tremendous outpouring of support Harrison seems to be receiving from all corners of the nation who are under the impression that awarding little kids plastic trophies has somehow led to the downfall of a once-great nation. Most of the reactions I’ve read about what Harrison did have been overwhelmingly positive.


For starters, let’s not forget that Harrison once slapped his girlfriend across the face, then destroyed her cell phone to prevent her from calling the police — so let’s not be too hasty in awarding him any “Man of the Year” trophies (if we did … would he return them because he didn’t deserve them?)

I get Harrison’s point. I truly do. He wants his sons to understand that true success comes through hard work — and that sometimes “showing up” just isn’t enough.

What about when it is, however?

For the past two years, I’ve coached my son Max’s t-ball team. Max is autistic and — in large part because of his disability — has struggled to keep up with the other kids. He has to work five times as hard to do what comes naturally to other kids. My father-in-law and I have spent hours with him in the backyard just teaching him how to swing a bat and throw a ball.

Other kids rolled out of bed, showed up for games and were better than my kid. At the end of the season, every kid on the team — no matter how much or how little he or she contributed — received a medal from Troy Junior Baseball. Should my son, who had to work harder than every kid on the team in an attempt to overcome a disability, not been given a medal because he had fewer hits and more errors than the other kids?

Anyone who thinks so can come and try to take Max’s medal away. I dare you.

Some of you — especially those of you who have anointed Harrison some sort of American icon — probably think that’s foolish, because of course all little children should receive some sort of medal or trophy. I should probably point out at this point that Harrison’s sons — the ones who will be returning their trophies — are 6 and 8.

And to be quite honest, I’m not sure age should matter, anyway.

My nephew Christopher walked on and made the Ohio State football team last season. He was placed on the scout team, which meant he never got the opportunity to play a single down for the Buckeyes. At the end of the season, however, after Ohio State won the national championship, he received a championship ring.

Should he have that ring taken away because he didn’t actually contribute on the field? The offensive lineman he played against in every practice last year certainly don’t think so. Numerous times throughout the season, they thanked him after practice for giving 100 percent — participating, basically — and making them better players when game day rolled around.

You see, sometimes showing up and giving everything you’ve got is enough to earn a reward. There are times when the odds are so stacked against you that merely getting up in the morning and facing them is a greater accomplishment than someone who is blessed with any number of attributes — and often a heaping helping of luck — doing what comes naturally to them.

But hey, what do I know? I’ve never competed at the highest level of athletics like Harrison. I have no doubts he has worked — and does work — harder than me in that particular facet of his life, which is why he’s in the NFL and I’m watching the NFL from my couch.

But maybe if the Steelers don’t win the Super Bowl this year, he should forfeit his paycheck. I mean, if you don’t win it all, you’re just a “participant,” right James?

Contact David Fong at; follow him on Twitter @thefong

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