On this week’s edition of Slate’s sports podcast Hang Up and Listen, Stefan Fatsis dug into the history of the participation trophy. An adapted transcript of the audio recording is below, and you can listen to Fatsis’ essay by clicking on the player beneath this paragraph.
Last month, I posted on Twitter a close-up of Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo’s fist while he was screaming at one of his players during an NCAA Tournament game. The replies included middle-finger emoji, the words wuss and soft, and this: “Jesus Christ your fuckn scared of the world get back in your bubble and hug your participation trophies.”
For many people, the participation trophy is a symbol of What’s Wrong With America: the disappearance of toughness, discipline, and accountability; the lack of will, determination, and hard work; the creation of coddled children who are taught that they are special, who never learn that you have to earn it, who are being set up for failure. Then–Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison became the honorary spokesman for the anti-trophy crowd in 2015 when he wrote on Instagram that he returned a couple participation trophies received by his kids.
But if you think the participation trophy is a recent symptom of the diapering of America, think again. We didn’t start handing out participation trophies when Baby Boomers became parents. We started handing them out after World War I.
The first print citation for “participation trophy” that I found in newspaper databases is from the Feb. 8, 1922, edition of the Evening Independent of Massillon, Ohio.
Headline: “Many Trophies for Tossers in State Tourney.”
“Trophies galore will be offered for the second annual Ohio State invitation high school basketball tournament,” the paper reported. “Members of the victorious outfits will be given individual trophies. A participation trophy also will be given each athlete playing in the series.”
Around the same time, universities began awarding a literal “participation trophy” to a fraternity or other group that had the most members participate in intramural sports. In 1924, the University of Minnesota debuted a “30-inch sterling participation trophy” for “the campus organization having the highest number of participation points.” The idea was to encourage students to do sports—participation as something to be rewarded, because it’s good to exercise, to compete, to try hard, win or lose. The participation trophy was a feature of campus life for decades.
Military bases handed out participation trophies during and after World War II. Schools and sports leagues picked up the practice, for individuals and teams. In 1942, each member of the winning team in the Western Division Class B of the Montana state boys’ basketball tournament—Corvallis, which beat Townsend, 50–35—got a miniature gold basketball, while “all other players received participation trophies.” In 1955, the Ithaca, New York, peewee football program may have introduced the emphasis of playing over winning—hastening our cultural decline—when it gave a participation trophy to the team that used “the greatest number of players per game for the season.”
When David Holder and Billy Lothian of Wayne, New Jersey, were ousted from the 1955 state marbles championship, the local paper reported that they “came back with participation trophies.” “Susan and Dave Win Speech Test,” the Marysville, Ohio, Journal-Tribune headlined in 1956; 11 losers got participation trophies. So did the nonwinners in the 1970 Oneonta, New York, soap box derby, and the 17 members of the swine club and 13 members of the sheep club at the 1977 Lehigh County 4-H Beef Banquet (renamed the Livestock Banquet to account for the addition of swine and sheep). The Amsterdam News in New York recorded what might be the record for participation trophy distribution: 1,840 given to the “youngsters” in an anti-poverty recreation program in Brooklyn. The year? 1966.
The headline on that story was “A Thousand Kids Earn Trophies.” The verb undoubtedly would have outraged James Harrison and could have served as a harbinger of the culture war to come. The handing out of participation trophies ratcheted up in the 1990s, coinciding with the growth of pay-for-play in youth sports, efforts to increase and broaden participation among children, and a cultural move to reduce the emphasis on winning. The first person to use “participation trophy” as an epithet might have been Janelle Gerth, the catcher on the 1993 Princeton, Minnesota, high school girls’ softball team, who, after back-to-back sixth-place finishes in the state tournament, “told the team that we’ve got enough participation trophies,” her coach told the St. Cloud Times.
It was a short walk from there to the take that participation trophies foster entitlement and diminish achievement. John Powers of the Boston Globe complained in 1993 that “we have become a nation of ‘winners,’ our shelves lined with consolation trophies and certificates of participation.” Powers didn’t use the exact phrase, but a year later the Abbeville, Louisiana, Meridional did: “Participation Trophies Take Away Meaning.” A dad columnist in El Paso, Texas, complained in 1998 that participation trophies were responsible for “giving our children a false sense of accomplishment.” The backlash was in full swing by 2005, when the Wall Street Journal published a trend story on how youth sports leagues were abandoning participation trophies.
While youth sports organizations continue to dump it, the participation trophy endures. But much more than a hunk of hardware, it’s a topic of study for its effects on children these days; a talking point for players like Bryce Harper and Kobe Bryant and coaches like Jeff Walz of Louisville’s women’s basketball team (and a sledgehammer point for the Alabama football strength coach); and a proxy for a dopey debate about whether a generation of Americans is spoiled, lazy, and needy. “Police Calm Millennial Protesters by Handing Out Participation Trophies,” a satirical website wrote in 2016. People believed it.
Literal participation trophies or medals are indeed dumb. Not because they send a “dangerous life message,” as a high school student wrote in the New York Times, or because they constitute “child abuse,” as a local news anchor in Washington said. They’re dumb because they inevitably wind up collecting dust. It’s fine to give a memento to children under the age of, say, 9 who complete a season of a sport or participate in some other competition. Just give them something useful, like a hat or a piece of equipment. Even better, give them something personal. Into middle school, every season, I designed a certificate for my daughter’s girls’ soccer team, the Power. One theme was a faux Instagram account written by our team mascot, Power Bar. The girls then created an actual account for Power Bar. Everyone participated in that.
As Torie Bosch wrote in Slate last year, kids aren’t idiots. No one thinks they’re a great athlete—or, 20 years later, that they deserve a promotion—because they got a 4-inch-tall plastic cup for playing soccer in kindergarten. In a simpler time, a trophy for participation was just a trophy for participation. The top finishers in the 1955 soap box derby in San Bernardino, California, got a Schwinn bicycle, baseball equipment, fishing and scuba gear, and cameras. But the race organizers, and the local paper, didn’t want anyone to feel slighted. “Best of all,” the local paper wrote (emphasis mine), “each heat winner gets a trophy and both losers in each heat also get participation trophies.” The story was illustrated with photos of both trophies. The headline: “Everybody Wins.”
This story was updated to include a 1993 Boston Globe article.