Harper’s position on ‘participation trophies’ is a clown stance, bro

By Brian A. Reed
Special to Butte Sports

Bryce Harper, who was introduced to the larger baseball world when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2009 at the age of 16, has been one of the five best baseball players on the planet ever since he first took the field for the Washington Nationals in 2012.

He was the Rookie of the Year that season. He’s been an All-Star every season of his career. He was the National League’s unanimous MVP in 2015. He’s still only 24 years old and likely hasn’t even begun to approach his apex.

This Saturday, Harper spoke to a group of Little Leaguers in the D.C. area and said, “No participation trophies, OK? First place only.”

My initial reaction is that Harper has never had to worry about “participation trophies” before. He’s never been anything less than the best player on his team. A good part of this is having been born with an almost unimaginable level of inborn ability. He is insanely dedicated to his craft and is constantly working to be the best at what he does. No one can say he doesn’t walk the walk when it comes to the benefits of maximizing talent through hard work.

As such, Harper has absolutely no experience to draw from when it comes to what a “participation trophy” is or isn’t, or what they should represent to any young player who receives one. He once told a reporter that one of his queries was “a clown question, bro.” Well, his stance here is equally clownish.

Ninety-nine point nine-nine-nine-nine percent of everyone who ever plays any kind of organized sport will never sniff the ultimate level at their chosen athletic endeavor. For anyone who’s not in that rarefied air of the .0001, a token of recognition for their efforts might represent the sum of their achievement.

The term “participation trophy” is derided as something that rewards mediocrity and somehow stifles excellence. But that attitude is disingenuous, as that was never the intention of awarding participation ribbons. By virtue of simple mathematics, not everyone can win. But that doesn’t mean that everyone can’t work to make the most of their talent, just as Harper is doing. Should the kids who aren’t the Bryce Harpers of the world feel as though they’re beneath some sort of tip of the cap for their efforts? I would hate to live in such a world, and I feel that most people would, too.

The term “participation trophy” as a pejorative was something made up and propagated by parents who were never as good as they wanted to be, never achieved the goals they had set out to attain, failed to overcome their disappointment, and now want to live through their children.

Accepting that more than one player or one team can receive positive recognition for a game or season isn’t an indictment of one’s competitiveness; it’s an acknowledgement of decency and compassion.

And it’s those things — the better angels of Humanity — that matter a hell of a lot more (and for a hell of a lot longer) than the borderline-sociopathic attitude of winning at all costs and damning everyone else as a loser.

Sports aren’t a zero-sum game. “First place only,” means he should retire now. He’s a phenomenal player but he’ll never be Willie Mays in the field or Ted Williams at the plate or have Yogi Berra’s collection of rings. I guess that means that Harper is a loser and should just quit, right? I mean, the Nationals didn’t win the World Series last year — or ever ­— so they should just be contracted, no?

Ease up, Bryce. No kid who has ever received a “participation trophy” has ever mistaken it for a championship or an MVP award, and no child who ever gets one in the future will take a single one of your accomplishments away for having received one. Kids know the score whether there’s a scoreboard or not, and any ribbon they receive for getting outside and playing isn’t going to hurt them.

It will certainly hurt them less than thinking that there’s no continuum between total victory and complete failure.

I originally expressed the aforementioned thoughts on my Facebook wall and received the following feedback from a certain individual, who disagreed with my position on the topic:

Some Guy on the Internet (SGI): “Participation awards are ridiculous!!!! If you suck at something, you shouldn’t get an award for being the [expletive deleted]!” (I don’t quite think this person gets it, but I played along).

Me: So, there’s “winning” and EVERYONE else is [expletive deleted]?”

I asked him if he was the valedictorian of his high school graduating class or if he was one of the people who, by the logic he was employing, “sucked” because he only received a diploma.

SGI never answered my question but later responded, “Awarding kids and teens gratitude, trophies, “oh good job for doing an [expletive deleted] job is BS.”

Seeing as my analogy wasn’t netting the results I had hoped for, I changed my tack.

I told him that my oldest son, a seventh grader at Lewis & Clark Middle School in Billings, qualified for the City Meet in the 400 and 800 meter runs. Kasey is more of a middle distance runner than a sprinter, so the 400 is not his favorite event.

I explained that Kasey didn’t win the 400, but he set a personal best in the event by five seconds and had a better time than I ever could have run. I was even more impressed that Kasey had competed on an ankle he had rolled fairly severely in the previous meet and had aggravated playing soccer on Saturday. My son had high hopes of placing in the 800 — his strongest event — but wasn’t able to set a PR due to his injured ankle.

I asked SGI if he wanted me to tell my son that his effort was wasted because, by the logic he employed, Kasey is [expletive deleted] or if he thought I should tell him I was proud of him for giving it his all.

I told him about Kasey’s soccer team. His team was, by all standards of measurement, terrible. They scored a total of eight goals in eight games — and eight losses — this season. My son had half of them and assisted on two of the others. He was, by a wide margin, the most talented and hardest-working player on the team. He’s not the Bryce Harper of the Yellowstone Soccer Association, but he gave it everything he could.

My final question for SGI was to ask if I should I tell Kasey that I was proud of him for never giving up and playing balls-out all season long, or should I say he’s [expletive deleted] since he didn’t win?

I already know the answer to that question, but it’s a shame that far too many people don’t. As far as I am concerned, “win or you are [expletive deleted]” is piss-poor coaching and even worse parenting.

— Brian A. Reed owns an air duct cleaning business, but he was the sports editor of the Miles City Star in a past life. He tends to veer most verbose and the pendulum of his prose swings from profane to poetic. He is the chest-thumpingly proud father of his three Reedlings, but has never received a “participation trophy” for being a Dad or for covering sports, and he’s okay with that. He somehow gets along with Bill Foley, despite Bill’s shortcomings when it comes to NFL teams. He didn’t read Bill’s column on this topic before writing this one but strongly recommends doing so.

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