Why James Harrison Returned His Kids’ Participation Trophies

Linebacker James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers watches from the sideline during a game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field on December 21, 2014 in Pittsburgh.
Linebacker James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers watches from the sideline during a game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Heinz Field on December 21, 2014 in Pittsburgh.George Gojkovich / Getty Images

Steelers linebacker James Harrison once told Men's Journal that if Roger Goodell “was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn't do it. I hate him and will never respect him." 

Harrison apparently has similar feelings for his kids' participation trophies.

Posting a photo of two trophies awarded to his boys on Instagram, Harrison said he is returning them until they “earn” a real trophy. 

"I'm not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned," Harrison wrote, "and I'm not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best … cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better … not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy." 

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Harrison is among the most feared players in the NFL, with a rap sheet that includes more than $150,000 in fines for questionable behavior on the field. But in wanting to nuke his sons’ participation trophies, he's not such a renegade. Most of the reaction has been in Harrison’s favor since his post, though some still support the idea of giving kids trophies and believe there’s no harm in shielding children from competitiveness.

Participation trophies are an offshoot of the self-esteem movement, which dictates that kids should be propped up and celebrated, no matter if they finish first or last. The craze has swept through youth sports since the 1970s, and most leagues now award every participant a trophy just for showing up. An example of removing all competition from the games, some leagues don’t even keep score. 

With a single Instagram post, Harrison, one of the toughest players in the NFL, immediately became the unofficial spokesman for parents who want their kids to learn, experience, and achieve things in life through hard work and determination. Undrafted out of Kent State, Harrison is a product of hard work himself. He is not alone in expecting more from his kids, who he says he will always be proud of. 

But he won't throw them a parade for just showing up, and there's some research that says maybe he's doing the right thing.

Doctors and other experts warn that celebrating children for mediocre accomplishments — or not accomplishing anything at all — can have a negative impact on them later in life. Heaping praise on kids who don't deserve it may make them feel good, but it can dull their competitive edge and blunt their resiliency as they grow older.

Failure teaches kids how to deal with life's disappointments. It molds their mettle and offers children an opportunity to learn from mistakes, set higher standards, and strive to do better. These are lessons not limited to the ball field.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, seeking perfection has created a fear of failure in the classroom, too. Critics believe parents and teachers are shielding students from failure in school, and that is also robbing them of valuable life lessons, according to experts.

Jessica Lahey, author of the new book The Gift of Failure, wants everyone to back off and let kids mess up. Because without experiencing failure, mistakes, and imperfection, she believes, they will grow up to become adults incapable of dealing with adversity. They may wind up being paralyzed by the fear of failure and will strive to experience less in their lives. 

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According to NPR, giving kids the freedom to fail "may or may not make them a big 'success,' but the research supports that it will make kids happier, less anxious and depressed, and more fulfilled to work toward agency in their own lives."

While there is a place for building the self-esteem of a child and protecting them from the uglier parts of the real world out there, there is also a valuable lesson learned from tough love. And when it comes to playing and acting tough, Harrison is a player with few peers.

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