Participation Trophies Aren’t the Problem

Let's stay focused on what matters in youth sports: Fun

Ben Sherwood

| 6 min read


When three Republican lawmakers in North Carolina recently proposed S.B. 430, a bill to ban participation trophies in youth sports, it wasn’t hard to see what’s really going on. This isn’t some bold initiative to make America greater again by outlawing plastic trophies that inevitably end up in the dumpster. It’s a predictable political maneuver aimed at riling up voters using the wholesome and essential values that youth sports represent: competitiveness, achievement, winning.

Let’s call this what it really is: red meat politics, youth sports edition. In poll after poll, most Americans (57 percent) believe that trophies should only go to winners. And the partisan divide on this issue — like everything else these days — is notable. More than 60 percent of Republicans consistently oppose participation trophies, while 50 percent of Democrats are against.

If mom and dad may have strong views, what do kids really think? Broadly, 60 percent of young people like the idea of rewarding sports effort and participation with awards. But trophies rank dead last among the reasons kids play sports. No one is taking their collection of two-bit chalices to college. No one quits a sport they love because they didn’t get a participation plaque.

So why the hullabaloo? Sometime in the 1990s, participation trophies became an emblem  of the decline and impending fall of western civilization — America’s waning power and competitiveness on the world stage, our children’s diminished earning potential and ambition, and the fraying of our social fabric.

Famously, there was Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison’s diatribe against participation trophies in 2015. “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.”

In the eyes of North Carolina state Sen. Bobby Hanig, one of the Republicans who brought S.B. 430 forward this session, “What we’re not teaching our children is to be prepared for life, be prepared for failure.” Hanig, an Army vet, continued: “When kids are growing up they’re being taught it’s OK to just be OK. You don’t have to be the best.”

Do we really think a $1.75 medal from teaches kids it’s OK to just be OK? Do we actually believe kids won’t be discouraged about a no-win 0-8 soccer season because they get a flimsy medallion at the end?

Truth is that participation trophies aren’t the problem. They’ve been around for more than 100 years, handed out by universities and the military alike to encourage people to take part in voluntary activities that we believe are good for them. 

For participating.

The real problem in youth sports isn’t trophies. It’s participation, or lack thereof.

According to the Aspen Institute’s Project Play, just 37 percent of kids aged 6 to 12 participated in team sports in 2021 — a historic low. What’s more, by age 13, some 70 percent of kids drop out of sport — girls at a much higher rate than boys.

The number one reason they drop out? It’s not fun.

Fun isn’t always the easiest word to unpack. But we do know that certain things take away from fun. For kids, youth sports are too intense — too time-consuming, too competitive, too full of stressed-out parents. For many parents, youth sports are unaffordable.

It’s worth saying out loud that lawmakers could actually do something about that second part. If youth sports was the point.

And youth sports should be the point. Sport is one of our best teachers. The wins, the losses, the resilience, the teamwork. The ups and downs or any season, participation trophy or not. The physical activity — especially as an alternative to the sedentary life of the video gamer or the social media scroller. The community that kids and parents alike find on the local field or court or diamond.

Personally, I don’t care when my sons pick up their plastic statues at the end of the season. But I do care very deeply that they come away having learned and grown and made friends and memories. And I will recite by memory their win-loss record, especially when it favors my team. Because you know what’s fun? Winning. Achievement. Competitiveness.

Politicians don’t get to own those values. The kids on the field do.

Bills like S.B. 430 are a dumb distraction. The future of American competitiveness shouldn’t, and doesn’t, sit on the shoulders of 6-year-olds playing flag football for the first time. We shouldn’t be concerned about whether a 4th grader takes home a participation trophy at the end of a losing baseball season. We should be concerned that our politicians are more interested in trying to score political points instead of doing the right thing for 50 million kids and families who play youth sports in the US every year.

It doesn’t matter if sports programs give out participation trophies, achievement-based trophies or no trophies at all. It matters that youth sports are well-funded, affordable, accessible to all. Kids across the US should have fun, meaningful seasons that are their own reward. One of the very same polls about participation trophies also gave us this nugget: 81% of American adults believe youth sports are an important part of a young person’s development. Now that is what I call a winning issue for any politician.

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