James Harrison, Participation Trophies, and the Logic of Capitalism

Here’s Harrison’s reasoning for why he will make his children return the trophies:

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.

James Harrison is a football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers who recently made news on social media for declaring to the world his intention to force his two sons to return the participation trophies they received after completion of something athletic event. Frankly, listening to sports media pundits discuss anything more complicated than throwing touchdown passes can be a grueling experience. Expecting them to offer trenchant social and cultural analysis is sort of like expecting a fish to grow legs and walk on land. Nevertheless, while listening to various ESPN radio hosts discuss the James Harrison story, and the idea of participation trophies, a very familiar set of themes emerged that I always encounter in reactionary right wing discussions of political and social issues. Particularly the tendency to use status acquired through exploitative means as a method for demonizing egalitarianism.

Honestly, outside the context of a purely cultural critique, I am still not clear on what exactly is so wrong with providing participation trophies. Throughout my life one of the regular refrains I have heard is that just showing up is half the battle, or sometimes just showing up is the most important thing, etc. The argument being that there is something very important about coming in every day prepared to work with others toward a common goal. That is all that I have ever believed participation trophies were. A simple token of recognition for having worked hard and tried one’s best, ultimately regardless of the outcome. The argument against participation trophies strikes me as reflective of the incessant need on the part of capitalist culture to maintain a continuous measure of status. Like those in the 1% who flaunt their status through display of their “trophies”, whether cars, clothes, houses, art, or technology, the opposition to participation trophies for children is a reflection of a desire on the part of parents to instill in young children the idea that only those truly exceptional people deserve to be rewarded for their labor.

These beliefs do not come from nowhere. They are the product of a broader behavioral conditioning model that teaches us to not only expect that some people will be rewarded more for their labor, but that this is a good thing. We should therefore not expect a living wage, proper health care, old age benefits, unemployment insurance, or any other benefit of participating in a collective effort such as the maintenance of society unless we REALLY earn it. Through discussions like this all context is lost, and the social, cultural, political, and economic practices that actually determine who the winners are, who REALLY earn their reward, disappears. Instead of understanding how certain systems promote the achievement of a few at the expense of the many we are left with an understanding of social relations that argues the vast majority of people are not as valuable as those special, “chosen” few who really earn their reward.

This is clearly the logic of capitalism at work. I bring this up only because we on the Left need to learn to recognize the many forms these destructive ideas take and the ways they are quietly implanted in our mind. Sports in America is one of the most politically conservative industries and so it should come as no surprise that these reactionary ideas pervade the culture. Remember this is one of the few industries that is actually open to those deemed unnecessary by capitalism: the poor and minority communities. And like the industries of the past available to the great unwashed they are making billions of dollars off the blood and sweat of these people. Therefore it is especially important to reinforce this ideological commitment among its population for athletes who become wealthy could very well prove a liability should they come to anti-capitalist conclusions. This may seem to some a petty issue to use in order to discuss class hegemony, but we must never forget how pervasive these ideas are, and we must constantly be prepared to fight them regardless of where they are found.

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