The internet keeps getting cluttered up with moralizing, derivative, utterly vacuous complaints about participation trophies. It seems that Millennials were awarded quite a few of the things in their youth by their indulgent parents and now can’t adjust to the workplace. We just can’t launch. There are some rather obvious correlation/causation fallacies at play here, including the attribution to childhood sports trophies of pathologies that are much better explained by a Fourth Turning structural crash of the international economy. The Opposing Viewpoints here are “Jobs: There Aren’t Any” vs. “Jobs: You can’t find one because your youth soccer coaches gave you trophies for not winning.” As I’ve mentioned here before, one of my youth soccer coaches, Kenneth Fitzhugh, went on to murder his wife, and just to throw a wild guess out there, yours probably didn’t murder his. Unless I’ve in fact diverted the attention of my fellow Palo Altans from techie fart-sniffing and the horrendous teen blogs kept under their own names by Pali High students (more fart-sniffing, it appears; the good blogs at Pali have to be anonymous), none of your youth soccer coaches ever became the subject of the true crime book Blood Will Tell.
Honestly, hearing that coach had left behind enough blood to tell didn’t really have a lasting effect on me. I’m just mentioning it for the SEO, since there might be some. It’s all about keeping the dream alive. If your youth sports coaches gave you and all the other special snowflakes trophies just for showing up and you seriously think this laxity of praise, this failure to rectify names before losers in the heat of defeat, somehow fucked you up into your adulthood, you’re being even more overdramatic about your coaches than I’m being about my coach for, as I mentioned, murdering his wife.
This carrying-on about participation trophies reminds me of the stories passed down to me about one of my great-aunts, a talented but troubled woman who tragically wasted her life. She was always complaining about various shit that had happened to her, much of it quite petty, and concluding whatever pathetic excuse of a sob story she was telling with, “And that’s what ruined my life!” No youth soccer coach ever bludgeoned and strangled me to death in the kitchen, and no youth soccer coach ever ruined your adjustment to life as a young adult by giving you a fucking trophy when you were eight. Fitzhugh always had that sort of Charles Cullen look about him, but we aren’t talking Jerry Sandusky here. The grope and the perv of our Lord’s servant Gerald is not with us always.
Excluding the possibility of truly ulterior motives, i.e., propaganda, I can think of two complementary causes of this trophy moralizing. One is the unfortunate likelihood that every medium of mass communication naturally goes through ethical and intellectual entropy over time, ending up in a state of poor ethics, idiocy, and general disrepute, and that on the internet this disrepute has taken the specific form of hot takes, excessive meme-mongering, and other clickbait. Imagine Matt Walsh publishing in the house style of Upworthy. That’s the end stage, more or less, and we’re pretty much already there. Brooke Bosca dove headlong into that swampy gutter, and I wouldn’t expect her to come up for air any time soon. The second cause I can think of is subsidiary to the first. It’s that stupid is as stupid does, and that stupid is demanding a paycheck for its writing instead of learning a trade. Quite a bit of equally bad amateur content on the same subjects goes viral, too, and the nominally professional stuff is generally earning its creators lowball gig wages that any respectable professional writer would find insulting, but these fuckheads want to be writers, and this way they can tell everyone that they’re living the dream. The dipshittery has spread to television, too, by the way: I’ve seen nationally syndicated funny video shows whose hosting and production aesthetics converge on those of YouTube videos about the latest high school gossip.
On the internet, the stupid is often the work of dimwitted fuckheads who can’t think of any way to understand differences between generations other than bog-standard pop culture and pop-psych references. I understand that you can get paid for doing this, but you’d do better cashiering at 7-Eleven. (Hell, so would I, and I spent the summer harvesting fruit so that my countrymen might not starve.) The median level of online discourse about generational conflict seems to be on par with “Like and Repost This Picture If You Remember Pogs.” I’m not kidding, I could copy and paste lines from Mein Kampf onto a picture of Bernie Sanders in 24-point script and get positive feedback on Facebook for being so politically engaged. Any sort of self-important nonsense attributed to a celebrity in the midst of a photo of the same celebrity looking self-important allows the montage’s creator to embarrassingly hack the limbic systems of his target audience.
Science: that which one fucking loves.
These dumbfuck participation trophies keep popping up like Whack-a-Moles as a lazy shorthand for the softening of a generation. I’m not saying that they weren’t stupid shit; they were some really stupid shit; but they weren’t rock-bottom retarded, either. They weren’t even the tip of the iceberg. Public K-12 education in the United States is atrocious, especially primary education. It’s a national disgrace. A thoughtful observer complaining about ways that today’s young people have been failed by the adults in their lives would do well to examine the public schools. But these people complaining about participation trophies aren’t thoughtful; if they were, they’d be complaining about something else. I know, Wow Much captain Such obvious Many tautological Very explain. We have a public school system that is best understood using analogies from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and for that matter a government and a society that are best understood using analogies from these regimes and from various Arab autocracies, but the problem is that the little brats got plastic trophies with crappy gold paint jobs telling them that everyone’s a winner in basketball. We have MBA’s turning every bit of the economy they can get their hands on into a boiler room scam or a protection racket, but the real problem is that youth sports weren’t used to teach children grit or determination or hard work or teamwork or graciousness in failure or some shit. The entitlement problem isn’t one of overcredentialed apparatchiks feeling entitled to steal everything that isn’t bolted to the floor, in the tradition of the Brezhnev Politburo or the post-Soviet oligarchic free-for-all, nor is it one of shady operators or outright psychopaths in the deep state feeling entitled to turn the United States into a replica of apartheid South Africa with the public corruption of Tunisia. No, the entitlement dwells in these kids who expect to get some small measure of support and encouragement for showing up in life and not being total fuckoffs.
This is not an unreasonable expectation. Any decent social contract includes an implicit agreement that management won’t bend labor over a table, shove a broom handle up its ass, and steal every cent out of its pockets. The corollary is that MBA’s are an indecent class. By Godwin, there were good people in the Nazi and Communist Parties, too. The United States is once again turning into a society in which the winners make off like bandits (many of them are functionally exactly that) and the losers are reduced to abject groveling penury. This isn’t a uniquely American problem, but we’re worst-in-class or very close in the developed world. It’s no coincidence that we also have the most bloated and self-important managerial class in the developed world. The alt-right internet is teeming with sarcastic references to “faaaaaairness,” consistently from beneficiaries of structural unfairness, or else from fools who fancy themselves beneficiaries. It’s all robber barons, bullies, and useful idiots, millionaires and temporarily embarrassed millionaires: the folks who make America great. Their condescending tone about fairness and those advocating it is exactly the tone that parents and teachers use with whiny children. But these aren’t children. They’re adults. Children put their parents in the position of having to explain to little Parker why he doesn’t get to pig out on Pop Tarts and play first-person shooter games all afternoon but Chase down the street does. Any tack other than a tautological appeal to authority is madness. With adults, the objection to unfairness is more likely about some asshat in management who claims the right to wantonly violate labor laws against his subordinates because that’s the way things work around here. If we weren’t a lawless society, fuckwad promptly getting his ass sued would be the way things work around here, but we’re lawless.
Notice that this isn’t the sort of moral hazard that has David Brooks wringing his hands. Homeskillet works for Massa, you know.
Participation trophies were a hamfisted attempt to restore a measure of equity to an increasingly inequitable society. Despite their daftness, there was a certain honor lurking underneath the concept. Part of the idea, I think, was for the adults to set a higher tone for the children, so that the latter wouldn’t be prancing around the field calling their opponents lame or sissies or pussies for losing a fucking youth soccer game. It was about keeping perspective. And really, these trophies aren’t nearly as deleterious as the formal drills in some youth sports programs. Pop Warner is good for getting a boy smacked around, and a generation or two of parents managed to rationalize the sensibility of allowing their children to repeatedly whack their heads against incoming soccer balls, like this would totally never do any kind of damage to anyone’s brain, especially a child’s. (Beautiful game my ass.)
We were given door prizes for showing up for this shit. Whoopa de fuckin’ doo. It was meant to instill values. Our politicians spent the nineties fighting over these as they purportedly related to the family, to give an idea of what they’re worth. By the way, Jack Marshall argues in that link that the shady “Values: Pass It On” billboards, TV spots, and Values.com bromides are cool because the sentiments are nice and it doesn’t matter that they’re sponsored by a billionaire recluse who probably has political axes to grind because process doesn’t matter. Or something like that. I can see now why some blawggers have reacted to his Marshall Project like, what the fuck, dude.
This is more topical than it may look. There’s something really unseemly about a moneyed shut-in paying for billboards with John Wayne telling passersby to cowboy up because he don’t like quitters, son. It’s a sign that we’re living in anything but truth. Why the fuck does meretricious horseshit like that have to be put on billboards? If a society feels such virtue in its heart, there’s no need for the propaganda. If it doesn’t, the propaganda has a vaguely Soviet feel. Do we really believe that John Wayne was a cowboy? Bitch I picked over 1,200 pounds of blueberries this summer, and I bucked over a ton of hay last summer. Those billboards are just pictures of a drugstore cowboy being an asshole. They’re Bernays meets the mandatory Stakhanovite work ethic meets the foul-tempered old bastard who runs the ranch down the road.
I hate to say it, but that’s about as American as it gets.
Sometimes we bring children into this ugliness. It feels wrong to risk disillusioning them so early, but it’s their country, too, so we might as well acculturate them. If we try to acculturate them into something genuinely more wholesome and ethical, that’s where we start needing real moral courage and patience and doggedness. Grit: Pass It On. Or pass the grits, please. And the cream.
Participation trophies were a cop-out. The parents, teachers, school administrators, and coaches wanted to reassure their children that failure would not be cataclysmic, but they weren’t courageous enough to actually live by any principle of the sort. These trophies were a byproduct of the yuppie project. They were meant at once to reassure children that winning didn’t matter; that there were no losers, only winners; and that losing was not an option. Yes, the thinking behind them really was that incoherent. It had to be. We had all these people who were egalitarian by political instinct but had achieved wild success in an economy that was benefiting them with its growing inequality, and against their political principles they would have been horrified to think of their precious snowflakes, who were destined to get terminal degrees, ending up working on some grounds crew.
Participation trophies were a crutch that allowed the adults to avoid facing the destructive moral bankruptcy of the yuppie project. Of course the stakes of failure were bad and getting worse, but facing the ugliness and making actual changes would have been a buzzkill. It would have meant a return to downward mobility for the upwardly mobile. In an equitable, egalitarian society the yuppies wouldn’t be so rich because they’re actually have to share with the poor. It wouldn’t be enough to talk about how maybe sharing would be a nice idea.
It was certainly easier to make the kids share the glory of victory instead. Participation trophies were never, ever, ever about the kids. They were about the parents. Children don’t have such stupid reasons for playing sports. They play sports because they enjoy the game. The less mature among them will cry or throw tantrums over fouls or losses, but that’s why parents and coaches are supposed to be there to calm them down and give them some perspective. It’s a lot harder for the adults to set such an example of maturity when parents are yelling at refs about bad calls, getting into their personal space, and maybe shoving them or beating them up. Good sportsmanship comes much more naturally to children than to their yuppie parents. Preteens aren’t old enough to worry about the legacy anyone will leave as deliberately barren, hyper-K-strategic helicopter parents blundering into a society of cratering birthrates and soaring inequality. (What up, Boomers?) That sort of neurosis is for their parents. (In fairness, it’s bled into Gen X, too. Shit.) It’s hard to give the kiddos room to find their own way and take some mulligans in life when one hasn’t bred any spares.
Suffer the children. The only solution I can think of right now is more “Go Home Yuppie Scum” signs. That was a White Sox-on-Cubs beef, so for once we’ll be taking the cues from losers, not winners.