education philosopher

James Harrison and Not Earning Trophies for Participation

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on August 18, 2015

Recently, Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison made headlines by returning two participation trophies given to his children – student athletes. In so doing, a lot of internet praise has accrued to Harrison. Here was his original Instagram post explaining his decision:

I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy. #harrisonfamilyvalues

The only way
I can describe my thoughts on this is that they are mixed. I’m definitely not as sure about Harrison’s decision as some seem to be. So let me explain a bit of why I am having trouble.

First, the whole message seems to be that these prizes were unearned. I’m not sure about that. A prize is earned when you meet the criterion/a for the prize. And in this case, that is James Harrisonexactly what the student athletes did. The prize was for anyone who showed up, the students showed up, so they met the criterion for the prize. Harrison (and others) may disagree that there should be a prize for showing up, ot that showing up shouldn’t be sufficient to earn a prize. But that is a different argument altogether than saying that the prize was unearned. 

Second, Harrison makes a point about believing that everything in life must be earned. More or less, I agree. (Of course, very few agree when that idea is taken to extremes, like the idea that I must earn my right to be alive or must earn the rights I am afforded under the US Constitution.) But even without such extremes, let’s not analogize everything in life to  a zero-sum football game either. Not everything in life operates the way a football game does, and earning my salary at work is a lot different from earning a first-place trophy.

My work contract stipulates that I am to be paid a certain amount for fulfilling certain requirements at my job – teaching with some level of success, doing administrative duties, etc. If I do these -regardless of whether I barely do them or exceed them – I get my salary. To get a first-place trophy in a tournament, on the other hand, the criterion is a lot more strict: I must outperform all other competitors in that tournament. Obviously, the tournament prize isn’t won simply by showing up and participating to a particular degree; whether you get the trophy depends on whether you are better than the others. But my work salary is largely earned by showing up and participating to the stipulated degree; it is not contingent on how I do relative to others.

My point? In some cases, showing up and participating is a fairly big component to winning. Harrison is right: everything from my salary to a sports trophy must be earned. But he is less clearly correct in his idea that “everything must be earned” means that if you didn’t out-compete, you didn’t earn. Life doesn’t always function as a competition.

My last point is that participation trophies may have a purpose of encouraging kids to put forward effort, or participate even when they may not be the best. Research by  Deci, Koestner, and Ryan do show that completion-contingent rewards do tend to undermine student motivation (probably because they are expected rewards, and the rewards don’t ask for much). But we’re also trying to get students used to the idea that they should put forward effort even when they may not be the best at the particular thing they are attempting. (So, there is existing research showing that, contra Deci et al., when rewards emphasize effort rather than performance, students maintain intrinsic motivation to “stick with it.”)

So, we can definitely argue about whether participation trophies increase or thwart the desired behavior – putting forth effort even when one isn’t the best in that particular area – but that isn’t how the debate over Harrison’s decision is taking place. Harrison may be correct that giving participation surveys may not encourage kids to put effort into being the best, but that is just one possible goal trophies or rewards can have; another is to encourage kids to stick with (and keep putting effort into) activities that they aren’t the best at and might otherwise give up on.

At very least, what I’m saying is that the discussion over Harrison’s decision needs to be a bit more nuanced. I am somewhat ambivalent about participation trophies, but whether they are worthwhile seems to me to involve more than the question of whether everything in life should be earned.

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