Steelers’ James Harrison Returns Kids’ Trophies: Oh, Please

Written by Rodney Campbell

The Steelers’ James Harrison returns his kids’ trophies. What good is that? The real problem is our obsession with winning, says sports ed Rodney Campbell.

aNewDomainrodney-campbell-anewdomainJames Harrison has been making news lately but not for more predictable reasons.

The Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker posted on his Instagram account this past weekend that he was returning his 6- and 8-year-old boys’ participation trophies from Best of the Batch Next Level Athletics Track Club. Apparently, the only accolades he wants are ones that go to champions, such as the two Super Bowl rings he earned in his first go-round with the Steelers. Not many people gain access to that exclusive club.

“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies!” Harrison wrote. “While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy.”

Oh, come on, James.

Harrison has long been known as a hard-nosed player. It’s the reason he still has a chance of making an NFL roster at age 37. But he’s sending a completely bogus message.

Participation trophies, ribbons, medals … whatever. None of them hurt kids or make them weak. They aren’t the reason American youngsters rank 14th in the world in cognitive skills, just behind their Russian counterparts. There are much larger issues in the world than not “earning” a childhood prize.


There’s nothing wrong with a little memento that your son or daughter played a season of tee-ball or Little League. Some of my greatest memories were the result of youth league baseball. My teams were never very good. We didn’t win league titles and usually finished closer to the bottom of the standings than the top. My limited skills definitely played a role. Scouting report: Good glove, no bat.

I have a much larger concern about the emphasis our society puts on winning at all cost, that second place is the first loser.

There’s a great example of that in the small town where I live.

A guy who coaches youth league football teams cuts every corner possible to ensure that his players win titles. He recruits pre-teen athletes, works them like they’re in training camp and they respond. His teams have won regional and national titles and the kids have memories all centered around winning.

They do earn their trophies, even if the coach does so using questionable methods.

Do the ends justify the means? While winning is great and a goal everyone should want to reach, it’s not going to happen all the time. Life is tough and even kids need to start learning those lessons. Winning every game and every title might sound appealing, but what happens when you come up short the first time? How do you react? If you’re one of the kids on a team that wins all the time, you haven’t learned how to lose gracefully. Take it from someone whose youth league teams lost all the time; it’s a valuable lesson.

Back to Harrison. There’s a lot to admire about him. He was a non-scholarship player in college at Kent State and went undrafted in 2002. After playing a season on NFL Europe, the former developmental league, he was cut by the Baltimore Ravens before latching on with the Steelers in 2004. He has spent 11 years in the league and made the Pro Bowl five times, an impressive resume.

Far be it from me to tell him how to raise his own kids. My wife and I never wanted children, so we’ve never had a boy or girl involved in youth athletics. Maybe my opinion is equal to that of an unmarried marriage counselor.

However, I would argue that you don’t need kids in order to make this call. The world is a tough enough place where winning is all that matters. Scoreboard, after all.

What in the heck is wrong with rewarding children for making a commitment and carrying it through to the end? Kids are sometimes quick to drop one activity for another. Drop baseball and pick up piano. Sticking through an entire sports season – games, practices and all – is an accomplishment in and of itself.

Getting a trophy or ribbon and sharing one final memory of a season spent on the football or baseball field with teammates is something that lasts a lifetime. The season-ending pool or pizza party is an American tradition.

But ending a season by packing up a participation trophy and sending it back? Come on, James Harrison. That’s a lesson that truly has no value.

For aNewDomain, I’m Rodney Campbell.

Credits: James Harrison photo courtesy: All rights reserved; Youth baseball photo courtesy: United States Marine Corps. All Rights Reserved.