Are ‘participation trophies’ worthwhile?

  • Mar. 31, 2017 12:30 a.m.

PHILADELPHIA — The childhood sports trophy, as innocent and ubiquitous a memento of American youth as yearbooks and baby photos, recently has become the focus of a battle as nasty and intense as any NFL rivalry.

For years and with increasing volume, radio talk show hosts and others have traced many of the nation’s social ills to the custom of presenting “participation trophies” to every youngster on every team, regardless of accomplishment.

On the other side of this cultural debate, many childhood experts cite research that shows such acknowledgments can produce better grades, better self-esteem, more well-rounded adults.

Author and journalist Ashley Merryman inflamed the debate in a New York Times op-ed piece in 2013.

“When children make mistakes, our job should not be to spin those losses into decorated victories,” she wrote. “Instead, our job is to help kids overcome setbacks, to help them see that progress over time is more important than a particular win or loss, and to help them graciously congratulate the child who succeeded when they failed. To do that, we need to refuse all the meaningless plastic and tin destined for landfills. We have to stop letting the Trophy-Industrial Complex run our children’s lives.”

Meanwhile, companies that make and distribute the awards — like Philadelphia’s Spike’s Trophies — have had to function in the civic cross fire.

“I’m very weary of … flippant and preconceived attitudes on the subject,” Keith Baldwin, the president of Spike’s, which has its headquarters in the Northeast, said this week.

To emphasize the potential positive aspects of such awards, Baldwin, 58, pointed to those he’d received for completing a half-marathon and triathlon a few years ago.

“I didn’t win or place in the top 10, or even the top 100,” he said. “I finished, I ‘participated.’ I received an inexpensive medal for both events. This so-called participation award represented a personal accomplishment. I trained for a year, lost 40 pounds to get in shape, and did my absolute best.

“Those two medals mean a lot to me. I’ll never win a gold in the Olympics, just like some of these young kids will never win a World Series or World Cup or even their local league championship. The medals are a memento of hard work that I’m proud of. I actually have them displayed in my home with all the family photos of kids’ graduations and weddings.”

Believing that others have similar stories, Spike’s recently solicited them from customers as part of its “What’s Your Trophy Moment?” ad campaign. In one, former Eagle Ken Dunek proudly displays a Pop Warner trophy he received as an 11-year-old.

“It was a big deal,” Dunek said.

According to Forbes, trophies are a $2 billion annual business in the U.S. and Canada. Until recently, perhaps driven by the “participation” trend that some believe dates back to the 1970s, sales had been increasing dramatically, up 500 percent over four decades, according to the magazine.

Baldwin, who has been in the business for more than 40 years, said that a slight dip in sales, which began in 2008, was unrelated to the ongoing stigmatization of the awards.

“It has more to do,” he said, “with Baby Boomers getting older, less disposable income in the middle class, technology and the internet.”

Founded by Myer “Spike” Shandleman in 1929, Spike’s company has long been intertwined with Philadelphia’s sports scene. For several years, it sponsored a successful basketball team in the Sonny Hill League. Recently, at its Grant Avenue building, it’s opened a gallery of Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame memorabilia. And since 2015, a “City of Champions” mural has adorned a wall there.

But consolidation — the company was purchased by REP Inc. in 1990 — and that decline in sales forced Spike’s to diversify. The company now has a division that produces braille signage for local institutions like Drexel and Children’s Hospital. They make promotional items and sportswear for Geno’s Steaks. They create corporate awards.

“We aren’t in the trophy business anymore, although trophies is a part of it, we’re in the personalization and relationship business,” Baldwin said.

The average trophy in 2017 is nowhere near as elaborate or as costly as those that Spike’s produced for Philadelphia champions in its early days. But, Baldwin insists, they’re no less cherished.

“Whenever I’m asked about the recent negative publicity, I always ask a few questions,” he said. “I ask, ‘Did you ever receive an award? Do you remember it? Do you remember what it felt like to be recognized?’

“More times than not, they remember and they also remember the time, the place and the positive feelings they had.”


©2017 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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