This is the other story on trophies- how simply calling something a trophy doesn’t make it so. Here’s my explanation, which goes against the current and might even be considered overly harsh. I wish I had a picture of our erstwhile trophies but they were short-termers in our home. They were so meaningless that we don’t even have a snapshot of them. But even without a photo, they are unforgettable.
If someone in your family has been on a youth sports team in the past thirty years, you’ll know what I’m talking about. These awards are ubiquitous. A gold colored figure stands atop a faux marble base with an engraved plaque as a reminder of the team and the year. The figure, male or female, depending on the gender of the recipient, is posed in a stance typical of that sport.
Unlike the trophies of yore, these modern versions are awarded not for victory or success, but for mere participation. And you hardly even have to play. Just showing up earns you a prize. And what a shame that is. How have we come to the point that showing up is enough to earn a trophy? Isn’t that an unfortunately low bar? Winners and losers are rewarded equally in an attempt to make sure no one feels slighted. But this leaves everyone in a bad place- either squeamish about undeserved recognition or slighted by unheralded recognition. Who knew a plastic trophy could wield so much power!
Can you imagine all the thoroughbreds in the Kentucky Derby getting a gold loving cup? What about all the runners- up in the Super Bowl getting a ring? Or the first Olympic athletes all being crowned with the olive wreath? Absurd, you say. I’m not sure when “winners all” became the norm, but it has happened between my student days and those of my now adult children.
It’s not just in sports that trinkets are dispensed as a matter of course. Birthday parties with elaborate treat bags are common. Wedding favors are too. It used to be that attending a nice celebration with the promise of some delicious cake was adequate recompense, but no more. And what convention would be complete without the swag bag? It seems continuing education and professional development don’t happen unless accompanied by lots of branded odds and ends.
This might seem a bit far afield vis-à-vis my Rules. But it is closely linked to being careful about what things are brought into your home. Remember the endowment effect? Getting rid of something is much harder than never acquiring it would have been. We become devoted to meaningless things we own, simply because we own them.
I’m swimming upstream on this but it seems we’ve gotten things all mixed up. Equating participation with victory or guests with honorees is a mistake. And we double down on that mistake by sending everyone home with a trophy or a prize.
And providing prizes for everyone makes an ingrate out of anyone who even thinks of eschewing that prize. What six year old will be able to say, “All I did was look for four leaf clovers on the soccer field. Is my trophy for that?” What about the partygoer whose birthday present was nearly outdone by the party favor? Have you ever slinked away empty-handed from the parting gift table at a wedding reception, hoping not to be notice? All of these are awkward positions and the path of least resistance is to take the trophy. Ill-gotten trophies and unnecessary swag quickly become dusty burdens so if you feel you must take them, feel free to make ownership short-lived.
A pendulum swings. Might we be headed back in the direction of the classic trophy? Will simply participating or being a guest regain its traditional place as well? I hope so. But if the trophies, swag and favors that I’ve damned as worthless bring us to our senses, I’ll concede that they were not entirely worthless.
A footnote: I checked with the clover picker (who has many true talents, of which soccer is not one) to be sure this essay didn’t offend. Her response. "I love it! I am not offended. The four leaf clovers were way better than the trophy." Even as a young girl, she knew that simply calling it a trophy doesn’t make it a trophy. The plastic is gone, but the clover lives!