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September 4, 2015
by Mary Horn, Psy.D.

NFL Player Sparks Debate on Social Media: Should Children Be Given Trophies Just for Participation

September 4, 2015 07:55 by Mary Horn, Psy.D.

Professional NFL Player James Harrison sparked controversy and  is being referred to as “old School” for returning trophies that were given to his children for participation in a sport’s camp (Wilson, 2015). There was a great deal of discussion sparked because of his action and his powerful words. His post to Instagram read: “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.”

His statement made national news and brought up some varying viewpoints on the matter.  Television giant HBO recently aired a show where Bernard  Goldberg  looked into our culture of giving trophies to everyone and the positive and negative psychological effects of the practice. Two large organizations that give participation trophies are i9 Sports and AYSO.  Both organizations operate with the idea of making sports fun and making children feel good, so all who participate receive a trophy.  i9 Sports aims to make kids feel special, while AYSO not only gives every child a trophy, the league does not keep score so no one is a loser (Pfeiffer, 2015). In our society, there seems to be a mixture of thoughts and opinions on the matter.

Some people in the discussion following Harrison’s post did not agree with him. One view was that if giving a child a tangible reward for working hard helps encourage the child’s confidence and encourages him to continue playing sports, why should we be so against it? Another person added that if the size of trophies varies based on placement, then children still understand what they are getting since the first place trophy is larger than all the others. Another person opined that what children receive from their coach, teacher or organization should not be up to parents. Parents should teach the value and meaning behind what children bring home, especially if their club, coach or teacher felt they deserved it. 

The practice of giving everyone trophies comes from a movement in the late 20th Century where California had a task force that studied self-esteem. The theory was that if they took children in struggling communities, told them that they were great, they would believe it (Pfeiffer, 2015). Some experts believe that this movement has spiraled out of control.  

The Other Side…

The viewpoint against this type of practice is supported by Dr. Robert Cloninger, a professor of psychiatry who studied the effects of rats in mazes. His study with rats led him to conclude that children will be unable to succeed if we pretend that they don’t fail (Pfieffer, 2015). 

Other studies have led researchers to believe that pushing for every child to feel special leads to problems in college. This viewpoint would be in line with Harrison’s statement, meaning that if we just give children trophies for showing up, why would they strive to get better? 

The supporters of Harrison’s post stated that as a father, he did the right thing and it was a good message to give his children. Namely, if you work to be the best, your accomplishments are worth more to you. Other parents talked about how the participation trophies are not valued by the children and end up in the trash. Some even seemed upset by the idea that we award people for merely showing up. Adults don’t get paid for merely showing up to work. They have to work for the reward of payment. If we just give awards away, we devalue what they represent . Further,  others added that children in our society have not learned that failure leads to success and competitive sports, similar to life, means that there will be times you win and other times you do not. By not allowing them to lose, we are taking away the chance for them to learn frustration and triumph after defeat. 

Conclusion: The Middle Ground

James Harrison brought an important issue to light. There are many aspects to the issue, however all the perspectives have commonality; that is, all viewpoints desire happy, healthy children.  Perhaps our society can aim for children who understand winning and losing, but enjoy youth sports with healthy competition so they may learn to strive for greatness, while building self-esteem through hard work, dedication and loving parents.


Pfeiffer, A. (2015) HBO’s Real Sports Looks Into America’s Trophy Culture’.  Retrieved from http://daily

Wilson, R. (2015) James Harrison returns trophies, says his sons didn’t earn them. CBSSports. Retrieved from Http:// sons-participation-trophies

About the Author

Dr. Mary Horn Dr. Mary Horn, Psy.D.

Choosing to enter therapy can be difficult, so I will walk beside you on this journey. Together we find new endings for old beginnings. No one should have to walk the road of transformation alone. I try to provide a safe, neutral environment, so change can happen..

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