The late, great Hall of Fame boxing writer Jimmy Cannon once wrote, “The literature of the sports page is devoted to sizing up a man’s capacity to endure pain and humiliation. We are cruel in our appraisals and we do it with the belligerence of people who are protected from physical danger by the nature of our jobs.”
That statement penned decades ago, rings even more true today with a twenty-four hour news cycle and incessant coverage of sports, specifically teams and athletes.
Analysts are quick to slap a “bust” tag on a young athlete that they believe hasn’t lived up to expectations. And why not? After all, three weeks of fall football camp is SURELY enough to determine whether that athlete was worthy of being a draft pick or a letter intent of signee in the spring.
The criticism generally doesn’t just end at one being a “bust.” It often times becomes a lot more personal. The public takes these statements as gospel and then regurgitates the comments in conversation. Someone’s inability to grasp the offense? Hard time adjusting to the speed of the pros? Well that’s not just a physical failing but a moral one as well. The athlete is stupid or lazy of course, never mind the fact that they might be new to the sport or to that level of competition.
What if we were to engage in an exercise similar to judging draft picks and assign draft-like grades to non-athletes? In this hypothetical exercise we would let “experts” evaluate work habits, career trajectory and accomplishments of non-athletes. Would we be deemed “busts” given all the advantages we have had in our lives? For example, we would examine people that attended well-funded schools, received SAT tutoring, graduated from a private college. If they haven’t started a high tech start-up worth millions of dollars or written the great American novel by the age of 30? BUST!
I always advise coaches and administrators against being so absolute in their initial assessment of a student-athlete when he or she arrives on campus. It is easy to get sucked into this exercise during staff meetings. I’ve been there when groupthink kicks in and the focus starts being on what the athlete can’t do as opposed to the myriad of other things he or she is capable of doing well.
This type of harsh critique doesn’t stop with just college or professional athletes. This exercises has managed to trickle down to the ranks of youth sports. The analysis isn’t necessarily about young people’s physical prowess directly but rather anticipated perceived character flaws that these athletes have.
The show HBO Real Sports recently covered the issue of “participation trophies” in youth sports. This much talked about segment discussed the current trend of youth sports participants being awarded trophies for their participation in sports as well as de-emphasizing the competitive nature of athletics. It seemed that the sporting world and viewing public was collectively aghast at participation trophies as well as the practice of not keeping score during competitions. I heard coaches and sports figures lament this practice and pine for the “good ol’ days” when only winners got trophies.
These venial sins of not keeping score and handing out trophies just adds to the collective fictions that we create about ourselves. Those fictions are that we are self-made. That we never got trophies or other rewards for just showing up to work. We “earned everything we got” and we wanted to achieve more because we were never handed anything in life.
It ignores the realities of contemporary educational and professional life in the United States that provides evidence to the contrary, such as rampant grade inflation at major universities, especially those “selective” institutions that are out of control.
But, nah. It is these dastardly trophies that are the ruin of the work ethic of the soft, wayward youth.
The kids aren’t the ones setting up these leagues. The participants aren’t the ones handing out trophies. The kids aren’t paying fees to participate in these events. Adults, namely their parents are. And the adults ask for these trophies for their kids because they themselves want trophies. Adults like affirmation.
Have you ever seen a post-finish line race scene immediately after a marathon or similar race? You will see plenty of adults with “FINISHER” medals draped around their necks that memorialized their accomplishment. They’re wearing them even though they didn’t finish within an hour of the winners.
The parading of the medals doesn’t end at the finish line. You can see “FINISHERS” wearing them well into the evening. You will see them at dinner just waiting for someone to ask them what their time was. They can’t wait to tell you how difficult the morning race was. Why do they wear the medal? They didn’t win the race. How is that medal any different from a child’s participation trophy?
In a non-athletic context, how is a child cherishing a participation trophy different from someone that wasn’t the valedictorian or even cum laude, placing their degree on a wall in their office? After all, that person didn’t finish at the top of their class. How dare they place a degree on their wall for all to see if they didn’t finish top of their class!!
The feigned outrage of course ignores the real issues of childhood development, like woefully inadequate funding and unsafe schools. But it is much easier to attack “trophy culture” than make any meaningful change.
The solution is really simple. Set up your own leagues, devoid of any trophies for participating athletes. Only give trophies to the winners if that’s what you want. Here’s another idea. Let the kids organize their own games. Let them resolve their own disputes. Allowing them to do that is far more lasting and meaningful than any trophy, whether participatory or first-place trophy could ever be.
Juan Lozano is a sports attorney in Los Angeles, California that focuses his practice on representing coaching talent. He is a former Director of Football Operations at a number of schools. Lozano is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin Law School.