When I was young, I wanted the biggest trophy in the room. To get it, I knew I had to earn it. I wanted the trophy that reminded me of the close finals match to a great opponent. I wanted it to shine in the sunlight, golden. I wanted something to show me on that day, I was the best.
If they didn’t have trophies, I wanted the biggest plaque. I wanted to hang something on the wall that told me I won. I wanted them in all shapes and sizes. They created a great backdrop for the trophies in front.
If they didn’t have plaques I wanted the gold medal. One that would be placed around my neck and thump-thump against the beating heart in my chest as I ran around and showed it off to all my teammates. When they saw it, they wanted one too, and they tried harder to get their own.
If they didn’t have medals, I wanted a ribbon in blue. A piece of cloth to be proud of, because it said “First Place.” They could hang out with the trophies, the strings draped around like giant necklaces on the men standing on top.
Eventually, other trophies crept in. They were awkward. They just reminded me I was there. They were given, not earned. They were trash. They were hidden plastic. They didn’t tell me I was great, they told me I showed up. They were used as a stand to hold up the plaques.
When I went to the Fayette County Fair, I wanted to win the biggest stuffed animal available, and I wasted a lot of money trying. I’d get half-broken whistles or small mirrors or even small stuffed animals, but they weren’t the same. They were prizes for trying. They were prizes for paying. They were certificates.
There is nothing wrong with certificates of participation. They can be bundled up in a scrapbook with movie tickets and homecoming pictures signifying you were there, but they don’t deserve a place with the trophies, because no matter how hard you tried, you didn’t win them. You got them by showing up and paying to play. They were the same prizes you’d get by looking at the bottom of a duck from the duck pond.
Not everyone deserves a trophy. Let’s make them sacred again. Let’s make them something that is earned. Otherwise, give every player the Heisman, every team the Lombardi, every actor an Oscar.
Exceptional awards should be for exceptional performances.
Gary Kinzer, contributor