Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Oh, Those Wacky Participation Trophies

Well, I just had to comment on this one.  If you happen to have had your TV turned off for a few days, or you only watch the Kardashians, you might have missed it -- but no one else did.  James Harrison, a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, made some headlines when he returned some trophies his children had been given for participating on a sports team.

Harrison's very public pronouncement of his action, which in the Twitterverse becomes not only easy but commonplace, created a storm of response, mostly supportive but, either way, getting the topic out there.  Since he is an athlete, he's easy for the tweeters to attack, but because he is black and also trying to be a good father, there is a built-in shield from excessive critique.

So where we are now is that the whole topic of participation trophies is now being kicked around the news-like programs, and will continue to be until a squirrel runs across the scene, or the FBI finds another 305 classified emails to have been stored on Hillary Clinton's private server, or until Donald Trump says, well, anything.

And that brings me to my take.

I have two sons.  They are 41 and 34, and participated in a lot of things, including sports teams.  Accordingly, there were a few participation trophies that littered their rooms over the years.  For me, in high school in the 1960s, I was more thought of as a student than an athlete, and for good reason.

Decades past though they have, I still recall that there was a participation "trophy" that has been awarded for more than a century, and about which no one complains, because it does recognize participation as achievement and very suitably.  It's called the "varsity letter."

Nominally, it reflects participation, but it is valued because, unlike Little League, you have to make the team and stay with the team to earn it.  Watch the movie "Rudy" a few more times and you'll see a guy who gets what the value of that particular "participation trophy" actually is.  I graduated high school with seven athletic letters, including for basketball which, if you saw how tall I am not, and was not, you'd know why that's so odd.  But I prize that letter, because I had to overcome a lot to get it.

But I really digress.

I could not possibly come down any stronger on the side of James Harrison on this one.  Even if you forget that this is about trophies and participation and all that, you're left with some core basics that you have to admire, specifically:
- Here is a man caring about imparting actual values to his kids and caring enough to do so
- Here is a man teaching his kids good values; in this case, that what you earn is to be valued
- Here is a man teaching his kids why what you earn has value, and why faking it is worthless
- Here is a man willing to take the extraordinary step of taking something from his kids to teach that lesson.

I don't pretend to know what it is like to be a black father today, and yes, I keep stressing his race because given the preponderance of fatherless homes with black children today, his example is particularly important.  But there's a broader context to take all this in.

We in the USA are being gradually choked by almost $20 trillion in Federal debt.  We spend over $1.50 for every dollar taken in by the Government, and much of that is for debt service and entitlements.  When you have borrowed $20 trillion, you have $20 trillion worth of creditors, and that includes some folks who are tapping our phones and reading our emails -- they're not all good people we owe.

That debt is dangerous, and it is exacerbated by the fact that almost half of the USA does not pay any income tax -- Mitt Romney's infamous but accurate "47%" line.  When you aren't paying, you're receiving, and eventually you feel entitled -- so entitled that you don't feel the need to earn anything, which I italicized because it's the exact word that James Harrison used to refer to the trophies he said he would allow his kids to keep as opposed to the ones he returned.  He said "Earn."

The entitlement mentality is absolutely pernicious among the workable poor, which is what leads to the victimization narrative seen in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray incident and the subsequent rioting.  The rioters had clearly never "earned" anything in their lives, so they did not value anything and were perfectly willing to loot their neighborhood and have it burn.  Simple as that.

James Harrison should be a hero to every parent, black or white, who tries to teach values and appreciation and hard work to his or her kids.  I truly hope that there are parents all across the country, married and single, black, white and whatever, for whom a light turns on and the message is received.

In 1969, I finished my high school career with a speech at graduation.  If I recall the warning to my classmates 46 years ago correctly, I said this: "When Stokely Carmichael shouts 'burn, baby, burn', it gets everyone excited.  But when Bayard Rustin says 'learn, baby, learn', who listens?"  My point was that it's so much easier to act entitled and value nothing.

The message of James Harrison is refreshing and necessary: "Earn, baby, earn!"

 Copyright 2015 by Robert Sutton
 Like what you read here?  There's a new post from Bob at www.uberthoughtsUSA.com at 10am Eastern time, every weekday, giving new meaning to "prolific essayist."  Sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at bsutton@alum.mit.edu.

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