Featured, Theory & Essay

Yes, Participation Trophies Are Stupid, But James Harrison Is A Shitty Parent

Let’s just get this out of the way.

Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker James Harrison was recently in the news for an Instagram post where he took a picture of trophies his sons were awarded for participating in a sports league, and wrote that he was giving them back. His rationale? Trophies need to be earned, not given, and allowing them to keep something like that cultivates a mindset of entitlement.

I do not know James Harrison personally. I am a Pittsburgher — and a huge Steeler fan — so I know of him. (More on this in a bit.) But I don’t know him. Never even seen him in person before. So, how can I possibly say he’s a shitty parent without actually witnessing any James Harrison parenting in person?

Easy. Same way you can watch someone being an ass for no reason to a server or bartender or bus driver — or anyone they assume is “beneath” them — and assume they’re likely just a shitty person. Or how you can witness a colleague pocket a pack of gum from the building gift shop when the shop worker had his head turned and immediately know she’s not to be trusted. Or how you can eavesdrop on 10 seconds of one conversation between a couple and know they’re in an abusive relationship. Sometimes you need more context to make certain determinations. And sometimes you don’t. Sometimes one act is enough.

In Harrison’s case, the issue isn’t whether participation trophies are a joke. Because they are. (More on this in a bit, too.) But there are dozens of different ways of instilling the value of hard work and competition in your children. None of them involve going on Instagram and sharing with your 184,000 followers how you forced your pre-teen sons to give back their trophies. This isn’t parenting. It’s pandering to the hottakers who believe entitled six-year-old are a scourge ruining the country. “Make those kids earn everything they get! Nothing comes free!” they comment on Harrison’s page. While at work. And presumably earning a pay check while working. But spending time at work to browse the internet and leave comments on Instagram pages and ESPN comment threads. Effectively getting paid for working while not actually working.

Also, you know that guy at the gym who lifts weights like he eats nothing but protein bars and junkyard cement? The guy who makes you think he’s either fresh out of prison or preparing to invade fucking Saturn by himself? The guy who looks how Beanie Siegel sounds? James Harrison is that guy.

james guns

No, seriously. Look for yourself.

Looks good at 115!!

A video posted by James Harrison (@jhharrison92) on

Working everyday A video posted by James Harrison (@jhharrison92) on

Now imagine if this guy was your dad. And your house smells like Creatine and Muscle Milk-flavored jelly beans. There’s already a 00.000000% chance his kids are not aware he does not want them to be “soft.” That he’d grind them into crystals and snort them off a pull-up bar if there was any inkling of “softness.” And there’s already a 00.000000% chance his kids aren’t already aware he’s the real life Deebo. But then he goes on the internet and pulls some more Deebo shit? And yes, that’s what happened. He Deeboed his kids out of some admittedly shitty trophies so an audience of sociopathic Yinzers and hypocritical Cheetos salesmen could fill his page with praise bukkake.

So yeah, fuck that guy. (But go Steelers!)

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • Aye Bee

    Preach! This 26 yo made a post about how parent’s have led to public shaming to “teach” their kids a lesson and how if he, at the age of 26, knows that that is a horrible way to teach your children a lesson, the parents doing so should know better. I do not have kids of my own and could only imagine how difficult it is to raise children in today’s age. I feel that parents are searching for a way to discipline their children where it affects them, and we live in a social media age. Embarrassing children on social media is the equivalent to whopping your child in front of his/her class because they were acting up. It could have positive effects or negative depending on the child. This was about him being praised for being “such an amazing parent for instilling values in his children”. The 26 year old said it best about what happens in the house, should stay in the house. People bring the world into their business then wonder why everyone is all in their business. You don’t want people questioning your life,relationships, parental skills, etc. keep your business off of social media.

  • Yellow Tail

    Reminds me of a dude I saw in Boston the other day posted up at a barber shop with his pants sagging while simultaneously being held up by a rhinestone belt just low enough to see his chainlink boxers. He looked like he ate people every 8-12 hours.

    I’m always amused by older people (usually white males) who whine about entitlement while collecting pensions at their gov’t jobs, they somehow didn’t need a college degree for, and sleeping at their desks.

  • Jacob

    “He Deeboed his kids out of some admittedly shitty trophies so an audience of sociopathic Yinzers and hypocritical Cheetos salesmen could fill his page with praise bukkake.”

    This is my favorite sentence of the year, ever.

  • JayWill

    I get what he’s trying to instill in his boys and agree because in life…there are no participation trophies or pats on the back even when you deserve them. He could have gone about it differently in a private manner. The man was an undrafted, undersized linebacker out of a small college (KENT STATE) and worked his way from the practice squad to a dominant starter. Nothing was handed to him and he dramatically drove home the point of there are no handouts in life to his kids

    • Andie

      I get a lot of participation trophies and pats on the back. I think we have a whole department dedicated to team morale. I really appreciate participation certificates/awards. Way more now. Than I ever did.

      • Yellow Tail

        If everyone at my job got a appreciation certificate I don’t think I would value it that much. I’ve personally been in situations where I’ve gotten a certificate from being on a board and I don’t really care for it if someone who was subpar got the same thing as me. Also a certificate is different from a trophy in my opinion.

        • focuseddaily

          exactly, If I’ve been busting my a$$ to help the team, and the slacker who just “showed up” gets the same award, then it doesn’t mean anything to me honestly.

          • QueLoQue

            Hustle doesn’t equal impact though. If you work your butt off on the court and still average 1pt 1rb just like the slacker, then you didn’t help the team that much, and basketball might not be your thing. That’s a hard lesson to learn as a child, but it’s necessary. Saying you deserve a trophy because you tried hard sounds just as whiny as the kids y’all are criticizing.

    • IsitFridayyet?

      Technically, the trophies were not handed to them. They had to show up to practices, learn plays, cooperate with their teammates, play etc. The trophies weren’t a reward but acknowledgement.

      • JayWill

        Terminology aside ( you can call them awards, rewards, or acknowledgments), the man is RAISING YOUNG MEN to be prepared for life. When they go to Junior High and High school there will be no participation trophies.

    • h.h.h.

      totally agree. especially coming from his background, i can he wants to teach his kids the benefits of earning praise, as opposed to getting awarded for showing up. i hope if i ever become a dad, i can teach them the same.

    • JennyJazzhands

      I didn’t know any of this. That’s admirable. I can see why he wants his sons to have that same fighting spirit.

  • LogicalLeopard

    Can’t agree. Just because the guy works out at a high level doesn’t mean that he’s being overly aggressive with his kids, like some cross eyed bully. Neither does giving back the trophies. And I doubt that his kids were “publicly shamed” by his posting it on Instagram. Were kids saying the next day in school, “Haha, you guys had to give back your trophies?” Doubtful. Regardless of whether he shared it on Instagram, the trophies are disingenuous. I was prepared to argue for them, for the sake of keepsakes/memories, if I hadn’t read the trophy. Student Athlete Award? Best of the Batch? It’s totally fair for him to expose that lie to his kids, and it’s totally fair for him to expose it to the rest of us as well.

    • focuseddaily

      Yeah cosign, I have kids and I don’t go for that either. It’s corny and lame and teaches them nothing useful. If you want’ something earn it, I don’t want them growing up looking for a pat on the back for just existing.

      • LadyIbaka

        Thank you!!!!!!!!!

      • LogicalLeopard

        And I don’t think that’s a bad message to teach to your kids, and I don’t think that’s a bad message to share on Instagram.
        Although, eventually you’re going to have to teach your kids about privilege too. Ironically, Harrison is telling his kids about earning things, but they will likely receive things that are due to privilege as well. They will likely have access to better coaching, playing opportunities, training, etc, if they choose to pursue sports simply because their father is wealthy. But that’s fine, just tell them that truth, so they grow up into a complete person and they can say, “My father taught me that you should always work hard for what you want. He also taught me that I shouldn’t pat myself on the back too hard for what I have, because I’ve been blessed with opportunities that others might not get. So I continue to work hard and be thankful and humble at the same time.”

        • LadyIbaka

          Preach that ol time gospel!!!!!!

        • Freebird

          all the bulls*t on instagram and social media people label as important things to share and this dudes message to his sons gets a side eye for being available to everyone? hmmmm.

          • LadyIbaka

            Thank you!!!!! Yet, we out here giving Instagram models participation checks.

            • PhlyyPhree

              Wait wait…I’m tryna get a participation check so I can put some airplane emojis in my bio section. Let’s not be to hasty here.

              Participation checks>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>participation trophies

              • LadyIbaka

                Giiiiirl, here’s what you do.

                -wear a schmedium blouse/shirt that shows your boobs participating
                -wear see through tights that show your booray participating in mountain climbing
                -contour your face like a shaitain.
                -do not participate in the thirst that will ensue from the phakk boys of instagrammation. Just sip your tea and thank God for giving you a baaaady body.

                • Freebird

                  “Just sip your tea and thank God for giving you a baaaady body.”

                  Is this accurate PhlyyPhree?
                  Just want to make sure you are not being misrepresented here.

                  • PhlyyPhree

                    Define baaaady.

                • PhlyyPhree

                  Lmaooooooo. You righttttt.

                • Sahel

                  Yes,do the first two.

              • Freebird

                i’d like one of them checks too.

                • PhlyyPhree

                  LOL. Apparently AM showed us the way. I, for one, will be instituting her sage advice ASAPtually. I got homecomings to attend.

          • LogicalLeopard

            Exactly! *LOL* It’s like, “Shut up, James Harrison! We want to see a picture of what you had for lunch, not insightful messages on today’s society!”

          • The side eye is that this became a story that led sports shows

        • Sigma_Since 93

          I’ll use the BET Cut analogy here and say the intended audience. James’ kids should not have IG pages so they would not see what he posted similar to Tip Drill coming on at 2am so kids would not see the credit card swiped in the bootay.

          • PhlyyPhree

            *shakes a cheek in agreement*

          • LogicalLeopard

            That’s true as well, and the other kids their age probably shouldn’t have them either. And even if they did, how could they tease them about this?

  • Hypermasculinity is so interesting to me. They’re kids, what’s wrong with them being acknowledged in a way other than 1st place or MVP? I feel bad for kids with these parents who live vicariously through them.

    • cakes_and_pies

      Interesting and dangerous. Especially for Black boys. I imagine he’s like this with his boys https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPxHxwkTPqM

      • Cleojonz

        LOL this is funny. You’re probably not too far off.

    • LadyIbaka

      There was nothing hyper masculine about this.

      • How is it not hypermasculine???

        • Nick Peters

          I think he is borderline psychotic….built like that. probably why he is very good @ football.

    • Wouldn’t say it’s hypermasculinity… Shoutout to them dance moms

  • The big homie Danie said it best, competitive kids are going to be competitive regardless of the existence of participation trophies. I have no idea why older people believe that just because there are participation trophies that kids will no longer want to be competitive. It’s like they’re completely unaware that kids aren’t aware that they’re bunk.

    • Yellow Tail

      I don’t think the focus is on kids losing the competitive spirit. I think it’s more about kids who truly are mediocre or subpar expecting praise or recognition just for participating or doing your best even if your best isn’t good enough.

      • Those kids don’t expect praise and don’t worry they will be sufficiently reminded of how mediocre and sub-par they are by their peers and adults.

        • Yellow Tail

          Somehow I feel this is where the term “hater” originated. Kid gets trophy just for showing up thereby creating little incentive to actually go above and beyond what you might think your best is. Peers/parents tell kid you could have done better. Kid wonders why all these people are criticizing them and doesn’t pay much attention because they have a trophy to make them feel happy and secure. Chalks it up to everyone being a “hater”. Years later they fall way behind from where the could have been.

          Positive reinforcement is always good but it should be appropriate.

        • Cleojonz

          And when that finally does happen it is life shattering because no one told them otherwise up until that point.

          • I think you think kids are significantly dumber than they actually are.

            • Cleojonz

              It’s not about intelligence at all. It’s about effort and an inflated sense of importance and how great they are. They really do believe they are that great.

              • Let me rephrase: Kids have a far more acute idea of how good and bad they are in relation to their peers than you are giving them credit for.

                • Epsilonicus

                  As someone who coaches I totally agree. They definitely know.

                • Aly

                  Totally agree with this. My son is WAY harder on himself than I am on him.

                • Cleojonz

                  I am not only speaking in terms of sports here, it would be hard to deny someone’s skill vs. your own.

                  • Epsilonicus

                    Even when I was teaching, the kids knew where their grades were compared to others. They knew the talented kids vs the slackers. Kids know this even in elementary school.

                • Epsilonicus

                  Not only are the kids self aware, their peers are definitely letting them know where they stand on the talent pecking order.

                  • Sigma_Since 93

                    That’s bull. Kids size one another up real quick. You know who’s the weak link on your squad. Tell me you’ve never been on a team where you groaned when Timmy got put in?

                    • Epsilonicus

                      That is what I am saying. the kids know who is talented and who aint, oftentimes quicker than the coach or teacher.

            • Kema

              I think most adults think this about kids. It’s interesting since we were once children ourselves. Do we forget?

              • BlueWave1

                Yes, we do forget. And any parent who calls themselves “parenting” on social media is doing it for their own ego stroke. This has little to do with his kids.

                • Lea Thrace

                  say this again!

                  This is the equivalent of him wanting a damn participation trophy as far as Im concerned. You really feel that way then do it. No need to tell the world. Unless you are looking for accolades. Cause trust, no one was asking for his opinions of parenting.

                  • IsitFridayyet?

                    The plot thickens!

                  • Jennifer

                    Sing it to the children!

      • Sigma_Since 93

        or you put in marginal effort and expect praise like you maxed out.

      • Yellow Tail

        I’m not saying I don’t believe in giving out something. If the whole team really tried their best then why not give them all certificates or throw a party to show appreciation for a job well done. Trophies to me are excessive for just participating especially when you see what trophies and medals signify in the highest levels of competition.

      • cakes_and_pies

        Does that happen in non-white households? I’ve been reminded of my Black tax since I could understand I have to try harder. Every minority I’ve known has been reminded mediocrity is not an option.

        • Epsilonicus

          Exactly. I never got the message of mediocre is where it is at.

          • Wild Cougar

            They teach that in some colleges. Polish the turd and sell it. Or that’s what I heard one time.

        • PhlyyPhree

          Hello?
          Twice as hard…

          But maybe it is all the rage in the other households

        • Cleojonz

          It’s definitely a factor. I think it’s hard to be a minority and not have had this instilled in you- that you have to work twice as hard to even be considered equal, let alone better. There is still a generational sense of entitlement at play though.

          • cakes_and_pies

            Agreed.

        • Yellow Tail

          I personally never ever got a pat on the back for being mediocre. If I got a B my parents would be like…okay and? If I was in a sport and they knew I wasn’t really good or did my best I didn’t get any special praise. Although I do think now this whole trophy for everyone thing is common among kids no matter what color especially in the burbs. Although a black parent might not give praise for being mediocre the kid now has a trophy to give them that praise.

    • Sigma_Since 93

      Simple. Kids want the glory but don’t want to put in the work. My son learned this the hard way. He was so used to showing up and putting in minimal effort AND getting a trophy at the end of the year. Freshman year rolled around and he tried out for the varsity squad. He thought he would show up, make the team, and obtain the spoils…..noap he got cut.

      Sophomore year he puts in slightly more work than the year before and makes the team. At the season’s end at the awards banquet he gets nada because he didn’t contribute enough. I asked him how much time his teamates put into honing their game vs himself and he said there was a considerable difference. THAT’S why what Harrison said is spot on.

      This summer he and his brother have been grinding, although I think they could have done more, and he and his teamates saw a sizable uptick in his game at day 1 of tryouts yesterday.

      • To quote Kurt Warner, “You know, entitlement predates participation awards.”

      • CamCamtheGreat

        ” My son learned this the hard way.”

        What you described is not the “hard” way. It is the way. This was a great lesson your son learned in high school, which is pretty much where you should learn it. At 6 and 8 years old, James Harrison is doing too much. Let the kids have fun and get their trophies. Why does it have to be so serious?

        • Sigma_Since 93

          I disagree. It was the hard way because I’ve been having the same conversation with him since he was 6 years old. Situations are different I know this but my son needs / needed to be mindful of:

          He’s black playing a predominately white sport
          We live in the suburbs; you will not have black teammates to lean on
          Folks (white folks) don’t think you are good enough to be here
          Your comp has had better instruction

          To be on par, you must work twice as hard to be just as good. being better than your competition will take even more effort.

          This translates over to school, college acceptance, life, etc.

    • QueLoQue

      Kids are definitely smarter than we like to give them credit for. A participation trophy may soften the blow in some cases, but kids know when they suck and they know when they’re good, and a trophy wont make them any more or less competitive than they already were.

      I think the big issue with Harrison’s discipline is that he put it online for everyone to see. Similar to that trend from a while back with people beating their kids and giving them embarrassing haircuts and posting about it online, the psychological scars will last a lot longer than the physical ones.

  • Aly

    Participation trophies are not a sign of entitlement. His sons were recognized for (presumably) working hard and trying their best. Entitlement would be them getting trophies for doing absolutely nothing.

    • Sigma_Since 93

      Aly you can show up, pick your nose, and be an azz and you would get a participation trophy at the camp in question.

      • Aly

        That doesn’t mean his boys did that, though. I would trust that they did their best.

        • PhlyyPhree

          But to me, TO ME, I wouldn’t even want that trophy. If I showed up and tried my best and the kid who picked wedgies all day showed up and we both got the same trophy, I’m gonna get my dad to melt that s#it down for scrap metal anyways. I think the trophy culture has gotten ridiculous

          • Aly

            I can see your point.

    • Cleojonz

      On the Real Sports segment trophies were still given to kids who’s name were on the roster but they never even came to one practice or game. It’s really out of hand.

      • Aly

        The kids who didn’t participate shouldn’t have gotten trophies.

        • Sigma_Since 93

          It doesn’t work that way though. When my kids played soccer, there were kids that cried and threw exorcist type tantrums on the field and they got trophies. Groups hand out trophies like Oprah hands out cars on her show.

          • Aly

            Ok.

  • Brandon Allen

    I don’t know man. He does SEEM like a ridiculous musclehead but he may be a great dad. We don’t know. Putting the photo up with all that explanation was a bit much. But participation trophies are stupid…What did you win? Nothing. Maybe team T-shirts for the year or something would be more appropriate.

  • Angela Diane

    Not to mention he is in the papers for domestic violence today: http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=3284544

    • Freebird

      this is from a few years ago, i think.

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