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The Great James Harrison Participation Trophy Scandal of 2015

Recently Steelers LB James Harrison took a stand against participation trophies and, by extension, the Everyone is a Winner mentality that permeates our culture.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Clarification 8/20: James Harrison knew what kind of trophies his children received and made an informed choice to return them. Based on the comments section in the article, it seems readers may have misconstrued those facts. My thought here: Participation is in the eye of the participant. Something that feels like a participation trophy to Harrison might be perceived as hard-earned by others.


When I initially saw Pittsburgh Steelers LB James Harrison's social media post about returning his sons' participation trophies, I thought "Right on." As a parent, I've had to explain to my kids that everyone is not a winner. There is one winner. Everyone who finishes after the winner is, technically, one of many losers. So I get James Harrison's overall perspective. Entitlement is a societal scourge, and it is important for kids to understand that both achievement and effort are essential ingredients for success. It is unrealistic and dangerous to teach kids overtly or inadvertently that jobs, money, healthy relationships, and opportunities magically appear like participation ribbons at the end of a Kindergarten fun run.

I was about to write about that angle, but then I took a closer look at the trophies in questions and saw a "Best of the Batch" inscription. "Oh," I thought to myself. "That is Charlie Batch's foundation." While I agreed in principle with James Harrison, I also know a lot about former Pittsburgh Steelers QB Charlie Batch's foundation from the conversation I had with him earlier in the offseason. (If you missed that three-part series, you can find the third article and links to the first two here.)

I figured there must be more to the story. After all, Charlie Batch does not let kids participate in many of his organized activities unless they attend mandatory tutoring. Opportunities for fun competition are contingent on achievement and effort. Traits that even James Harrison would agree are important.

While Harrison's kids probably do not go hungry at night, many of the student-athletes that Charlie Batch serves through his foundation do not know where their next meal is coming from. It sounds cliche', but it is true. So true that one of the services Batch's foundation provides is the availability of after school snacks. No questions asked. If you're hungry, you can stop by his Homestead foundation and get something to eat. That way, if a child does want to participate in a sport, run around the neighborhood, or even sit down to do homework, he or she won't be distracted by an empty stomach.

So, for many Best of the Batch participants, survival takes effort. It isn't handed to them. They work for it. Clothing, a place to sleep, nourishment, sense of safety.  There is very little they can count on and take for granted. Enter the Batch's sports programs, including the Next Level Athletics Track Club, where Harrison's kids were participants. The goal of the club is to focus on "the development of student-athletes in an environment that promotes academic development, self-esteem, and confidence." The original point of the program according to Batch was a lot more basic: "At the beginning the program was just to get the kids off the streets and give them something to do," he told me.

Clearly, his program has evolved to include participants beyond underprivileged residents of Homestead. The underlying values, however, remain the same. While earning good grades and participating in a sport might be easy and effortless for some, it is quite an achievement for a young man or woman who battles hunger, an unpredictable home life, and other challenges. Those trophies weren't just for showing up.

The same trophies Harrison returned provide valuable life lessons to the children of Homestead. That lesson is not one of entitlement. It is quite the opposite. The message those trophies convey, perhaps for the first time in a child's life, is that hard work does pay off and that there is tremendous value in dedicating time to both athletic and academic endeavors. Children look at the trophy and believe the message: "I'm good at school. I can be more. I can do more."

Those trophies could mean as much to the Best of the Batch kids as a Super Bowl ring means to James Harrison. And, instead of being the culmination of a lifetime of hard work, those trophies could provide the motivation and impetus for children to start their own journeys and begin their lifetime of effort and achievement.