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My Name Is Iden | Everyone is a winner (or else)

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I was not a super athletic kid. I didn’t come from a family of athletes or even sports fans. But I did love baseball. I loved to watch the Reds. I bought tons of baseball cards. I even played Little League, but, as previously stated, I was not a super athletic kid. I actually sucked pretty badly — so much so that I still remember every hit that I got in my two seasons of little league. All three of them.

So yeah, not great, but at the end of the season I still walked away with a trophy. We all did. The outstanding players left with more than one, but none of us walked away empty-handed.

And that is how it should be.

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“Participation trophies” have taken a beating over the last few years in the media. The talking heads that populate the after-dark news cycle seem to be particularly fond of blaming them for turning the youth of America soft and leaving our nation unable to face the challenges of today.

They say America needs more winners if we want to keep on winning. The thinking here seems to be that trophies are how you separate “winners” from “losers.” You bring out the best in an individual by giving that best individual performer a prize while simultaneously shaming the others through a lack of recognition.

On the surface, there may seem to be some sort of carrot and stick logic to this, but the logic is based on the particularly American fallacy of exceptionalism — the idea that a lone champion can win the day and succeed against all odds. That is fantasy. Can you imagine game seven of the World Series and a lone pitcher taking the field? Even some Frankensteined super trooper mashup of Cal Ripkin, Venus Williams and John Wick could not win alone. No one person, no matter how exceptional, succeeds on their own. It takes a team to meet a challenge. It takes a team to win.

I’ve been on many teams since my baseball days. I’ve been on the fire-ground. I’ve been in the trauma bay. I’ve been a parent. I consider my whole life’s work a collection of participation trophies.

The challenges of today are massive. Problems like climate change, income inequality, gun violence, etc., affect all of us and require all of us to show up with our own talents and contributions. In other words: We don’t need champions. We need participation.

It is implicit that when we expect an entire group to come together to reach a goal, to work hard and give of themselves for the team, that there be something there at the finish for everyone. If you teach people from youth that only a few will be rewarded, you demotivate the rest of the team — or, worse, you create a generation of short-sighted and selfish individuals who only work for their own glory and quick gain.

The trauma team I worked with saved hundreds of lives. Those people would be dead without the nurses, paramedics, X-ray techs, housekeepers, registration clerks, human resources department, etc. Each person played their role. Each person showed up for the team and to accomplish our goal. Everyone of us participated. When my children succeed, it is because I had the help of my wife, family, teachers and community to guide them.

That is how society works. That is how we raise children and put out fires. That is how we build bridges. That is how we combat climate change. That is how we save lives and make the world a better place. We teach participation and we teach each member to be proud of the work that they contributed toward the team’s success.

The “Highlander”-style thinking promoted in the media —  the notion that “there can be only one” — works directly against this. It creates and reinforces a sort of feudal hierarchy by linking the team’s success to the star player’s existence when that relationship is actually the reverse. I never hit a home run, but I showed up every day. I never performed a surgery, but I showed up every day. We all did and no person was any better or more important than another. When the team won, we all won. When the team lost, we all lost.

There will always be outstanding players, leaders in every field, and they are vital, but they are not so worthy of praise that we should devalue the contributions of the other team members. Without that team, those superstars are no different than any trophy-less “loser.”

We should all display our participation trophies proudly because they represent work and effort toward a goal. America doesn’t need champions. We don’t need lone warriors. America needs teamwork. If we don’t teach that to our children, then we will have a generation of adults chasing private jets and golden toilets while the world burns around them. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t feel like winning to me.

*The author is an artist and writer. She lives in Yellow Springs with her wife and three children. You can follow her work at mynameisiden.com.


One Response to “My Name Is Iden | Everyone is a winner (or else)”

  1. Athlemaphobia Anyone says:

    There must be a name for those with an aversion to sports; people whose minds enter a limbo fog whenever sports–any sports things–are discussed. I believe Robin Williams claimed to be one of those and I, too, wear that thorny helmet. Something akin to a dense London fog befalls my mind whenever visions of tumbling uniformed players adorn my TV, or hoops or even pucks or any other ball game. I don’t get it; never will get it and certainly there’s no shame in admitting it. Brad Pitt admitted to having possible facial blindness; well, it is somewhat like that, only with sports. “Yeah! Ra. Ra. Ra.”

    Anyway, Just notta ball person. Sorry.

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