Michael Matteo: When the participation trophy kids grew up

Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Participation trophies are exactly what the name suggests. They are trophies given to anyone who participates in some form of competition. It doesn’t matter whether you are the most valuable player on a team or someone who never got into a game because you receive the same trophy.

The debate about whether or not participation trophies are good or bad has existed for a long time. Some will say that giving everyone a trophy encourages the self-esteem of all kids who participate. Others say it promotes mediocrity and kills competition. The psychology of these kinds of awards, and what they mean, are a driving force in the philosophy of progressives that extends far beyond athletics. 

Participation trophies have actually been around for a long time, approximately 100 years.  In the 1920s the University of Minnesota used participation trophies as an incentive to campus organizations for having the highest number of participation points. The Ohio State High School Invitational gave all athletes who participated in their tournament a trophy. In the 1960s, noted psychologists like Dr. Benjamin Spock and Dr. Joyce Brothers advocated the idea that giving every child a trophy was good for each child’s self-esteem.  

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the participation trophy became very popular and children learned that they didn’t have to be excellent to receive an award. Kids who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s are now in their 40s and 50s and it is evident that this idea of entitlement just for showing up extends far beyond sports. 

Adults who subscribe to this idea have gone on to become teachers, college professors or parents who have instilled this sense of entitlement in their children. Thus, it is no coincidence that so many young people today view socialism as a good thing, despite all the overwhelming economic evidence to the contrary. If we think about these kinds of awards in terms of economic systems: capitalism is a system where winners of a competition are rewarded with money, similar to those who win MVP awards or other awards that involve being the best at whatever they do. 

Socialism is basically an extension of the participation trophy mindset. If you are a high-wage earner, you are expected to give more of what you have earned to someone less fortunate. If you chose not to go to college, you are expected to pay higher taxes because those who went to college demand that you pay their debts for choosing to go to college. If you are a white person, you are told that you have a privilege of skin color, and many believe that it is solely this privilege that has contributed to your success.  

The mentality that a person should get an award just for being on a team, without having contributed to winning is the essence of much of the left-wing ideology that permeates progressive, woke thinking in America today. The idea that “we are all winners” is a common mantra of those who either don’t want to compete or are unable to compete at a high level. It is a rationalization that is also being used to defend decisions to eliminate gifted programs in public schools and dumb down education. 

Gifted programs are created to help high-level students achieve, but many on the left have argued that they are unfair or even racist. Educationally, it’s the idea that failing a child scars the child, so grades should be eliminated, and no child should ever fail. The problem with this attitude is that failure is a part of life, and learning how to deal with failure is a vital lesson that may be painful, but needs to be learned. Likewise, if someone fails at something, it means they are not ready to move on to the next level (if there is a next level) of whatever they failed at. 

It’s become popular for colleges not to count SAT or ACT scores in college admissions, which could mean that students are admitted to institutions of higher learning without the requisite skills needed to do well and graduate. (This explains the fact that between 30%-40% who enter college drop out and 30% drop out in the first year.)

Participation trophies are actually all about a popular term bandied about by liberals today: equality of outcomes, which is also referred to as equality of results or equality of condition. 

It is normally applied to economic circumstances and the idea behind the rhetoric is that everyone needs to be equal, and those who have more should willingly transfer their excess to less fortunate to level the playing field between the haves and have nots. This notion has evolved from the idea that everyone should get something, and it’s unfair to reward the best and brightest because it is a blow to the self-image of the worst and dumbest. Ironically, this notion is not applied to sports or even the liberal entertainment industry. The best teams win World Series, Super Bowls and NBA championships.  The best players win Cy Young Awards, MVPs, scoring titles, and other prestigious honors for athletic achievement. They receive top dollars in free agency because success is rewarded. There are no participation trophies for the Oscars, Emmys, or Grammys. Yet, many of those who support and win these awards are the first ones to point out their defense of this participation trophy mentality.  

Like it or not, the business world is also about winning and competition. All companies aspire to be the number one company in their industry. There can only be one champion in any sport and actors who make a lot of low-grossing movies find their careers in the toilet.  Politically, no one remembers who lost the election because the winner is rewarded with the office they sought. Most people can name presidents, but how many people can name the candidate who loses a presidential election?  

The mindset of everyone who believes that receiving an award or reward and the denial that some people are stronger, smarter, or just better at something is a misnomer that results in a lot of whining and fits nicely into the victim mentality mode of rationalization that is so popular with left-wing thinkers. If everyone gets the same trophy, wages or has the same equality of outcome where is the incentive to be the best? If a student can’t fail or work to strive for an A in a class, why should one apply himself/herself?  

Self-esteem is important, but it is not achieved by winning a trophy for existing or by being given something that is taken away from someone else. It is achieved through hard work, learning from failures, and pride in achieving personal goals. It means something to be praised as the best or greatest, whether it is as a historical figure, an athlete or entrepreneur. No one aspires to receive a participation trophy, personal greatness is not achieved through mediocrity and great societies are not forged through noncontributors. 


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Michael Matteo


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