Friday, August 21, 2015

Understanding Participation and Winning

  After a summer off from running youth chess tournaments the school year has started and I am slowly getting my fall schedule of tournaments set up. I didn’t run summer tournaments for a number of reasons. There was the (unfulfilled) possibility that I would have to make trips to California for the project I was working on, the ever increasing cost of renting the outdoor shelter I had been using for my summer tournaments, and the poor attendance of my summer tournaments last year at a church on the south side of Des Moines.

  I was talking with a sponsor about my lack of summer tournaments and they offered me the use of their company board room. The board room was a great playing site with leather chairs and rectangular wood tables that were perfect for chess boards. There was only room for about a dozen players and parents so I had a free invitational tournament that gave eight former champions of my youth tournaments the chance to play a one day tournament in really nice conditions.

  The tournament was a success. The players and their parents all appreciated the great playing conditions and everyone got along before, during, and after the games. As a bonus the company bought Subway sandwiches for all the players and parents. I didn’t offer any prizes for this tournament – not even the participation medals I give to everyone who attends my regular youth tournaments. Before the tournament started one of the players asked about prizes and I told them that the Subway sandwich was their prize which got a good laugh from the players.

  I didn’t give too much thought to not having prizes for the invitational tournament and I didn’t give too much thought to having trophy prizes and participation medals for my fall tournaments until I saw this story in USA Today sports section about how NFL football player James Harrison is returning the participation trophies his 6 and 8 year old sons received for a summer youth activity.

  Harrison wrote "I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! 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. I'm sorry I'm not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned 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. #harrisonfamilyvalues".

  I especially liked the reference to ‘#harrisonfamilyvalues’ which I hope doesn’t include his 2008 arrest for domestic violence. It probably doesn’t since the charges were reduced to simple assault and criminal mischief after Harrison agreed to undergo domestic abuse counseling. What Harrison does in his spare time is no business of mine – I was just letting my mind wander and wouldn’t have brought it up until I saw the ‘family values’ phrase.

  Two years ago I wrote about the Keller Youth Association Football League’s decision to do away with their participation trophies and the reaction to that decision. The decision didn’t bother me as much as the derision that accompanied the entire concept of participation trophies. This year’s reactions were no exception. USA Today columnist Nancy Armour wrote about Harrison’s decision this week and came down hard against giving out participation awards saying “If we're honest with ourselves, the trophies, ribbons and medals we hand out so willingly are more about us than the children getting them. It's affirmation that our kids are as wonderful as we think they are. It's also a way to fool ourselves into thinking that we're sheltering them, at least temporarily, from the cold, cruel world.The accompanying rebuttal piece quoted trophy manufacturers asking that they not be blamed for fostering an 'entitlement mentality' along with a HBO Real Sports video showcasing how much money is in the trophy business.

  Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves to compare participation trophies to 'Political Correctness', saying “There are no starters and there are no bench players because everybody plays. You get trophies for simply showing up. We are never allowed to crown champions because not everybody can be one and to do so humiliates those who lose, and we will not do that… Look! It's a perfect example of what I'm saying! Here you have a series of leftists all over the media agreeing? You would think they would back up the PC version. You would think these are the people that would rake Harrison over the coals for being insensitive and not understanding the plight of children, how they all can't be champions and so forth, and yet everybody falls in line.

  I have to admit the trophies Harrison’s kids received were pretty nice and far beyond what I would expect of a participation award. Its even called a 'student-athlete award' which sounds like more than a participation award. Since Harrison references that kids shouldn’t ‘cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy’ I wonder if his kids cried and whined until someone gave them these trophies to shut them up. If that’s the case then I’m with Harrison – he should have taken those trophies away. But perhaps these are merely participation trophies which were earned by participating. They don’t say ‘WINNER’ or ‘CHAMPION’ or ‘FIRST PLACE’.

  When I first wrote about this topic I saw no reason to stop giving out participation medals at my tournaments and two years later I still see no reason to stop. I don’t know if Nancy Armour has ever given anyone anything but I have given out almost two thousand participation medals at my youth chess tournaments over the past five years and I am not trying to fool myself or shelter children from the cold cruel world – I’m just giving participants a memento of a tournament. A chess tournament where winning and losing can turn on the smallest of oversights or a tiny lapse of attention is plenty cold and cruel with or without a participation medal or trophy. I admit that Armour is a little right when she says the participation medals I give out are about me. They are about me in the sense that I design a different medal for each tournament and assemble them myself. It is my way of thanking the participants for participating.

  Rush Limbaugh equates participation awards with not being allowed to crown champions because the losers are humiliated. I still crown champions and kids know who the best and worst of them are at any activity before any championship awards are given out, The kids that are going to get upset by losing are not going to feel better by receiving a participation award and the kids that don’t worry about losing aren’t going to get upset because they don’t receive an award. They are just kids playing a game and recognizing their participation is not a life changing event one way or the other.

  I believe that you should get what you earn and if a participation trophy or medal is earned by participating that sounds reasonable to me. The South Snohomish, Washington softball team earned a playoff spot in the softball Little League World Series by winning their first three games in pool play, including a win over the Central Iowa Little League team. The South Snohomish team then lost 8-0 in the final pool play game to North Carolina. The win created a three way tie between North Carolina, South Snohomish, and Iowa with Iowa losing out on one of the two playoff spots by tiebreak.

  The Iowa team filed a protest, saying the South Snohomish team did not use their best players and bunted on every at bat in order to lose the game and deny Iowa a playoff spot because they did not want to meet Iowa in the playoffs. The protest was upheld and a playoff game was ordered between South Snohomish and Iowa. Iowa won the playoff game to get into the Little League World Series in which they were promptly eliminated.

  The same USA Today newspapers and other media pundits that lauded James Harrison’s decision to return his children’s participation trophies with proclamations that you must earn what you get in life and only winners should be rewarded are silent when it comes to the losing Iowa softball team getting another crack at the Little League World Series by complaining and protesting about a game that they weren’t even competing in. Silence also accompanied the South Snohomish softball team being penalized for clinching their spot in the playoffs so early that they could choose to not compete in their last game and influence the competition they had to play.

  I don’t understand South Snohomish purposely losing a game because I think it’s better to maintain momentum just like I don’t understand NFL teams with 13-0 records resting their players instead of trying to go undefeated but I believe they earned the right to conduct their final pool play game however they wanted by virtue of their dominant play in the first three games. I don’t understand why James Harrison would have his children participate in an activity that gives out participation trophies if he doesn’t want his children to get participation trophies. And the thing I really don’t understand is why so many feel so much anger towards participation awards.