Participation Trophies for All and the Ruination of Our Youth? Chill Out!

We’ve all witnessed those youth sport ceremonies where every participant receives a trophy. While most consider them to be a fairly harmless way to offer a child some encouragement and provide a sense of accomplishment, there are a considerable number of critics who deride the practice. They argue that recognizing children for mere participation encourages mediocrity and does little to promote excellence. According to the most fervent of those critics, such practices are leading to the creation of a generation of entitled, lazy children.

We all like to consider ourselves “competitors” and “winners”. As adults, we have a propensity to look down our noses at how “easy” younger generations have it. “These kids are so spoiled”, we claim while reminiscing about our hardscrabble lives and sports experiences.  That “I’m a winner” narrative parallels the narrative of American “exceptionalism”. And the notion that sports is a vehicle to instill the drive for excellence in participants by emphasizing and rewarding winning above all else is an extension of that narrative.

But the issue of recognizing young athletes for participation is far more nuanced.

As a lifelong participant and intense observer of the role and influence of sport in our culture, it has become clear to me that the relative value and emphasis on the importance of winning does, and should, vary depending upon the level of play. Yes, winning is important but it is a fluid concept, one that ebbs and flows throughout an athlete’s life. The purpose and value of participation in sports is influenced by the push and pull of two seemingly incongruent forces and concepts. This tension is best described as the process (education and personal development) versus the end result (winning).

Youth sports, particularly at the pee-wee level, should be about participation and having fun. Winning at that level is meaningless. The purpose of youth sport is to create a child-centered focus and environment where the kids get exercise, acquire some skills and above all, have fun. The goal should be to make it as enjoyable and accessible as possible so that when the season ends, the child will have had a positive and nurturing enough experience to want to play the sport again in the future. And if receiving a participation trophy or certificate at the end of the season helps contribute to that goal, then provide one. The fact is, receiving such recognition at age 5, 6, 7, or 8 is not going to warp their personalities for a lifetime.

If we truly believe in sports’ value as an educational and character building activity – one that teaches lessons in discipline, teamwork and, yes, the importance of striving for excellence and winning – we must acknowledge that the only way an athlete will be able to eventually learn these skills and character traits will be by continuing to play the sport on an ongoing basis. That being the case, why make pee-wee league sports about winning rather than participation and having fun? The idea at the pee-wee league is to engage them with the sport and begin to nurture in them a love of that sport in a way that lasts a lifetime. And if providing a kid with a participation trophy contributes to that child wanting to continue to play the sport in the future, so be it.

Without question organized sport can be a valuable tool to teach the importance of striving for excellence through hard work and dedication. But clearly, when around 70 % of kids quit sports by age thirteen (National Alliance for Youth Sports), with a major reason being that they are no longer having fun, serious consideration must be given to the relationship between emphasis on winning and making pee-wee sports about participation and fun. If we want to instill in kids the importance of developing a drive and desire to win it should be emphasized at an age appropriate time.

In short, what’s the hurry to replace, at such an early age, the joy and innocence of a child participating for the mere fun of participating with the adult driven concept of winning being the central purpose of sport? As an athlete rises through the system to the junior high and high school levels, there will be plenty of time to increase the emphasis on, and rewarding of, winning. But if we destroy their love of sport by over emphasizing the importance of winning versus participating and having fun to a point where they quit by age 13, there is no chance of ever instilling in them the lessons related to striving to win because they will no longer be on the fields and courts to learn them.

That said however, winning, even at the high school level, should never overshadow the purpose of sport sponsored by an educational institution. Even with an increased emphasis on winning the fundamental purpose of sport sponsored by an educational institution remains, education. It is the “educational value” of participation in sports that is the primary justification for it being sponsored by an educational institution. So yes, increased emphasis on winning is more appropriate at the high school level provided the importance of the end result (winning) does not overshadow the value of the process (education).

As the athlete moves to the college level, the pressure to win becomes greater. Again, while there is nothing inherently wrong with that, at it’s core, the athletic experience, even at the college level, must be first and foremost about education. Even at this next level of competition, the fact that it continues to be justified based on its educational benefits for participants requires that the balance between the emphasis being placed on winning versus using athletics as a tool to educate and instill positive character traits in participants remains balanced and in the proper perspective.

Once the athlete reaches the professional level, all bets are off. As a professional athlete, everyone knows the score. Pro sports are a business. And the business is winning and generating money.

I spent two years as the youth program director at a YMCA where I was responsible for running several youth sports leagues. One of the more amusing experiences relating to those leagues was regularly being asked by youngsters immediately after a game ended, “Who won?” 
Generally, I’d reply, “I don’t know.” Invariably, they’d consider that for a moment, shrug their shoulders and respond “Okay”. More often than not, they’d then turn to their parents to ask where they were going for ice cream. At such a young age, kids really don’t care about winning as long as they are having fun playing the game. And that is just fine because pee-wee sports are not about us adults and our values. They are about the kids and their wants and needs. 

While it might sound trite to some, the fact is, there is a lot of truth and wisdom in the age-old sports saying, “It is not whether you win or lose, but how (and whether) you play the game.” So for those who think the world is coming to an end because we are awarding pee-wee league athletes participation trophies, it’s time to chill out and appreciate the fact that when it comes to pee-wee sports, the kids just want to play and have fun. While providing some sort of recognition of their participation is certainly not necessary, it clearly won’t result in the end of Western civilization as we know it.

In Search of the Shared Music or Athletic Experience

Our band recently performed a gig during which I sweated as much as in any basketball game.  It was the end of one of those early spring days when an unseasonable warm front moves through and the temperature explodes to summer-like levels. It was still too early in the season for restaurants and bars to turn on their air conditioning as the forecast for the following days was expected to return to cooler, more seasonable temperatures. But hot is hot, particularly under the added intensity of stage lights.

Perhaps it was because my rehydration concoction of choice for a gig is bourbon rather than Gatorade. To my knowledge, there are no peer-reviewed studies documenting that the intake of bourbon results in a greater perspiration output than does Gatorade.  Regardless of the science, I was drenched.

It was clear to the band, through our exchanged looks, nods, laughs and congratulatory bonding, that we had played a memorable gig. Everyone played hard and played well. It was one of those nights where it all clicked. The music was tight, the sound clear and rich, the audience connected.

There are not many experiences as powerful, inspiring and just plain fun than being a part of a band and a musical performance that is really cookin’. When all cylinders are hitting in unison the result is in an intense connective, shared experience with not only your fellow musicians but also the audience. That is why more than a few musicians have been known to debate whether such musical moments are better than sex. The point of this essay however, is not to compare making music to sex. That would likely require a book length analysis. That noted, its purpose is to explore the similarities of the shared experience of playing music with that of playing basketball.

There are so many parallels between athletics and music. Both involve performance, require rhythm, develop similar teambuilding and character skills as well as physical activity. Yes, the physicality of music performance may not be as intense as basketball at age 25 or 40, but for an old blues musician, a performance on a sweltering stage can be plenty physical.

I have had a life long love affair with basketball. Even after my competitive playing days were long past, I continued to play a regular game of pick-up basketball in places such as Athens, Ohio, New York City, Kansas City, Birmingham Alabama and Lancaster, PA, among others. In the top five on every “Moving to a New City – To Do List”, was “Find a Noon Hoop Game ASAP”, usually the second action item on that list following “Find a Place to Live.”

What was the hunger that drove that obsession? Was it the need to continue to play the game after competing at a high level, including professionally? Clearly, it was not fame. Pick-up hoop results are never carried in the local newspaper or highlighted on ESPN. Certainly, a major driver was the fitness benefits and a certain amount was to feed the competitive instinct.

For many athletes, the loss of a highly competitive outlet is difficult to replace. This is not to say that you should just give up and not try to find outlets to feed your competitive fire. Competition can be good for the soul. The challenge is to wean yourself off of the relentless need to always win, even in a pick-up or recreation league game.

But it’s not simply about feeding the competitive instinct. Fortunately, the need to compete fiercely and always win begins to fade with not only the perspective, but also the physical decline resulting from aging. As I’ve aged, I’ve found that the relentless drive to win has become increasingly replaced by the quest for sports’ potential to offer an intense, shared, personal experience with others. There is a greater appreciation of those elusive, shared moments when it all “clicks” and the entire unit comes together as one in a shared experience, fulfilling to the highest degree possible your potential as a unit.

Yes, competing and winning is important. But at certain points in an athlete’s career, the mere process of playing the game and the power that results from an intense, shared experience with a group of players is more important.

During those moments when your unit is operating as one communication occurs on a different level. Suddenly, the end result becomes less important and satisfying than achieving what athletic or musical expression is, at its core, all about – human connection.  The beauty and satisfaction of playing the game is in the quest to fulfill your full potential as a unit. When that occurs, whether in a 20,000-seat arena, an empty gym or a tiny stage in a basement bar, the feeling is magical. It is pure bliss.  That is why you play. And when you achieve it, even if for only a moment or two, whether as a team or a band, you have “won”. The terms and rewards of “victory” are determined by no one other than the players or musicians who are on the stage or in the arena.

When it all “clicks”, there’s no need for verification, permanent record. Or trophy. It’s the intense, shared moment that carries on and is remembered, even if no one else but the players or musicians remember it. Yes, it’s a bit more special if the audience is locked in and fully engaged and along for the ride. But that’s a bonus. Even in an empty room or barn, the beauty of the activity rests in the intense, shared experience.

Whether as an athlete or a musician, you know it to be true for you have experienced it.

Bo Knows Head Trauma

In 1989, NIKE started an ad campaign for cross training footwear featuring Bo Jackson, a former Heisman Trophy winner and the only man to be an All-Star in baseball and All-Pro in football. The ad featured stars in various sports proclaiming that “Bo knows” whichever sport, whether baseball, football, hockey or golf, was featured in the ad.

Apparently, Bo also knows about the association between participation in tackle football and brain trauma. And given that football season is, once again, upon us, it might be prudent to consider what Bo knows.

Jackson created a stir recently when he admitted during a USA Today interview that if he had known what he does today back then, “I would have never played football. Never. I wish I had known about all of those head injuries, but no one knew that. “

He also said, “there’s no way I would ever allow my kids to play.”

While the football industrial complex’s public relations machine is running full throttle in its effort to convince parents that advancements in equipment, diagnosis, testing, protocol and tackling techniques have made the game safe, the cold, hard truth is that these claims are being made with little concrete, scientific evidence to back them up. Even on the most basic of issues, there is widespread disagreement, an example being how long a victim of a concussion should be held out of action. Is it a week? Two weeks? A month? A season? We simply do not know.

Further, all of the attention being placed on concussions is somewhat misguided. The larger issue is the brain damage sustained by repeated sub-concussive blows to the head. Sub-concussive blows clearly rattle the brain, thus causing cumulative trauma and damage, but not to the extent where the negative impact is immediately and outwardly noticed.

It’s brain death by a million cuts. In other words, your child could be slowly, methodically damaging his brain without showing any immediate signs of doing so.

Until it is too late.

While we have little idea of the effectiveness of various treatments and safety measures, what is absolutely not in doubt is that playing tackle football is damaging to the brain. That is indisputable. The only question is the extent of the damage. And, based on accumulating evidence, the extent of damage is becoming much clearer.

Simply consider the most recent revelation from a study published this week in which 110 of 111 former NFL football players were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. , the degenerative disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. (Note: C.T.E. can only be determined after death).

So here’s the question: Why are so many people fighting so hard to deny the science and promote suspect and unproven safety improvements to continue to justify allowing children to play what is clearly a brutal sport that has been proven to cause brain damage? And how many more young people will sustain brain damage while we wait for the proof of this link to become irrefutable?

Ask Bo. He knows.

The Campaign for “Bandwork”: It’s Now Personal

Last year, I wrote that the word “bandwork” should be recognized as an “official” word and thus included in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. The purpose behind my proposal relates to the issue of music advocacy as it applies to school funding of music programs. It’s important that we recognize and use bandwork as an “official” word because words and terms are vitally important in effective advocacy.
While effective music advocacy is critical, due to a recent occurrence, this issue has now become personal.

Why should we care whether bandwork becomes an “official” word?

For too long, it has been the athletic community, particularly the football community, that has driven and shaped the dialogue regarding which activities are most effective in instilling in participants, the ability to collaborate and work together as a group. The fact is, football in particular, and sports in general, are no more effective at instilling such characteristics as is participation in music activities.

I have been on five person basketball teams working together to achieve a common goal of winning a game. I have also been in a five person band working together to achieve an agreed upon sound. And in both cases, the lessons learned – discipline, communication, personal and shared responsibility, persistence and sacrifice – are identical. Yet, the music community has remained silent regarding the notion that sports are unique in its’ ability to teach such skills. By remaining silent, the music community has ceded that narrative to the sports “lobby”.  Thus, it’s not surprising that when discussions regarding an activity’s potential to teach valuable communication and collaboration skills occur, all of the attention is focused on team sports’ potential to do so, while music’s potential to do the very same things is largely ignored.

It’s time to tell the other side of the story. And that starts with terminology. Words and terms matter. It is time that music advocates begin to recognize, and, for lack of a better term, “brand” music in a way that more effectively describes its value as an educational tool. A good starting point would be to recognize, promote and actually begin using the term bandwork, which should be defined as “the cooperative effort by musicians to achieve an agreed upon sound.”

In short, at a time when competition for educational funding is becoming more intense, it is imperative for music education advocates to be more focused and strategic in promoting music’s ability to teach the types of skills necessary to succeed in the more collaborative workplace and culture of the future.

To date, my motivation to recognize and include “bandwork” in the dictionary has been exclusively about music advocacy.

That has changed. It’s now personal.  

I was recently engaged in a heated game of Scrabble. The score was close and the game was nearing its end with only a handful of letters in the common pile remaining. I needed a good word. Looking at the letters in my hand and then at the board, it appeared, plain as day. I had the letters to spell it – Bandwork. And, it was worth 18 points! Add ‘em up: B for 3, A for 1, N for 1, D for 2, W for 4, O for 1, R for 1 and K for 5. Not only that, but it would have qualified for a triple word value. That’s a whopping 54 points! I would have easily won that game.
But as anyone who has played Scrabble knows, if your word does not appear in the dictionary, you cannot use it. Go ahead and look it up. It’s not there. This, despite the fact that millions of people intrinsically understand what it means and have benefitted from exposure to it.

So now the “Campaign for Bandwork” is no longer simply about music advocacy.

It’s also about Scrabble. And now it’s personal.

America’s Reassessment of Football: Another Brick in the Wall

Each year, the NFL goes about the business of drafting college players. Before draft day, players attend the NFL “combine” in Indianapolis where they are measured poked, interviewed and tested.  This all leads to the draft itself when a large chunk of the sports world follows with intense interest, which teams select which players. 

Media coverage of the draft generally focuses on two broad themes. The first are the rags to riches stories of the young men who have achieved their lifelong dream of playing in the NFL. These stories are inspiring and play into the NFL’s desired narrative of providing tremendous opportunity for fame and fortune. Everyone loves a story of an undersized underdog who “makes it” or the young man from a background of poverty striking it rich, often against all odds. It is a publicist’s dream. It’s compelling entertainment.  After all, the NFL is, at its’ core, “sportainment” – sports as entertainment. To that end, the league views the entire draft process as another advertising, branding and marketing opportunity. 

The second area of focus is on the winners and losers of the draft. Analysts debate and rate which teams improved their rosters with these narratives being closely followed by millions of fans. It is exciting to contemplate the possibilities of new players being added to the roster to improve their team’s chances of winning a Super Bowl.

Traditionally, media coverage of the draft can best be described as factual, breathless and fawning. Factual, in the reporting of the specifics of who drafts who and when. Breathless as in media members and analysts acting as if the NFL Draft is more important than world peace. And fawning, in our general tendency to genuflect and bow at the feet of athletes, coaches and sports figures and moguls.

But there was a slight difference in the coverage of this year’s draft. Specifically, an alternative narrative that seemed to be bubbling up just below the surface. While still overwhelmingly factual, breathless and fawning, there was a hint of social commentary, critical analysis and introspection. Specifically, that the institution of American football, with the NFL at its apex, is, at its core, a “meat market”.

The NFL a meat market? Astonishing! Of course, the NFL is a meat market! The NFL is a cold, hard business, plain and simple.

Clearly, the notion that the NFL is a business is certainly not news. And the fact is, there’s nothing wrong with the NFL being a business. Professional sports is the most “honest” form of sports that exists. Everyone knows the score. The players are all adults who know the risks, realities and rewards of the profession. Their job is to make as much money as possible while their bodies hold up or before the coach taps them on the shoulder to tell them they are no longer needed because they no longer produce enough for the team.

The goal of the owners and coaches is to squeeze as much production out of their “assets” (players) as possible. This is exemplified by the fact that owners can deduct players as a “depreciable asset” just like a machine in a factory.

The only difference between this system and an outright plantation system is that the “assets” are being paid handsomely. So let’s get over it.

Yes, the NFL is a meat market. And yes, players are simply cogs in a vast machine. No surprise there.

That said, there was something significant about the increased attention to this aspect of the realities of professional football and the NFL. While it may have only been a scattered few articles and certainly not a groundswell of coverage and attention, the fact is, the issue was raised and covered. It represents another level of public awareness and introspection regarding football’s role in our society.  More people are beginning to ask questions and critically assess the violent nature of football and their personal and our societal relationship to it.

From concerns about brain trauma to football’s culture of violence in general and towards women in particular to the enormous amount of time, energy and resources that are allocated to support it in our schools, people are beginning to ask more questions.  From parents being more hesitant to allow their children to play the game to decreasing television ratings, football as an American institution is receiving increasing scrutiny.

Granted, a few articles and some increased attention and critical analysis of the NFL as a “meat market”, in and of itself, will not bring the NFL to its knees.  But make no mistake, slowly and surely, things are changing as it relates to the role, influence and impact of football in our society.  Consider it another brick in the wall in America’s reassessment of the role of football in our society. Football is facing growing public scrutiny that will continue to increase.

And it should.

Every Day is Father's Day

PUBLISHED ORIGINALLY ONLINE at LancasterOnline.com /  June 18, 2017


The first words our first child heard were my wife’s. In the middle of a C-section, she called out, “Get a chair! My husband’s goin’ down!”

After regaining my senses, I was able to shake off this utter failure in my first test of fatherhood because I was to be the stay-at-home parent. I’d have plenty of chances to redeem myself.

That said, there were challenges and moments of insecurity. As much progress as we’ve made regarding gender roles, the stay-at-home father remains an oddity.

Some think you no longer have a “real” job. While they talk about work, you offer a detailed primer on the finer points of changing one child’s diaper before the other crawls off the bed or in the general direction of a deep body of water. Talk about the pressures of a real job!

And on more than one occasion — while standing in line at the grocery store with one child precariously “surfing” on the seat of the cart and the other safely “caged” but wreaking havoc with the groceries — a grandmotherly type would remark, “Oh, how nice. You’re baby-sitting.”

My response? “It’s called parenting.”

Another challenge was maintaining fatherhood self-esteem in the face of Supermoms. Supermoms have everything under control — always on time, kids impeccably dressed, lunches nutritionally balanced, diaper bag fully outfitted, all of it color coordinated, including a Ziploc bag of freshly baked snacktime cookies for their child’s entire class.

“How do they do it?” I’d wonder. It was enough to make any father feel inadequate as a mother.

Then there were the weekly play groups, in which stay-at-home parents would meet, children in tow, for coffee, snacks and some adult conversation. Always with wonderful spreads of food — symmetrically sliced fruit and a wide selection of breakfast items, often including three types of quiche, all in a spotlessly organized house. My menu consisted of two items — coffee and frozen pizza.

Fatherhood entails a lot of doubts and second-guessing. Often, there are no right answers. You do your best and move on. But I never once doubted that pizza-centered menu because being able to creatively doctor up and cook to perfection a frozen pizza is an essential parenting skill. And it’s a skill that keeps on giving, as your children don’t fully appreciate it until they are teenagers.

Fatherhood also provides countless moments of joy.

Dropping them off at school comes to mind. There is great joy in cranking up Little Feat’s “Fat Man in the Bathtub” as I approach and slowly make my way through “car line.” Windows down, volume up, van rockin’ and everyone singing. All at 8 a.m.! As they exited the van fully jazzed up and bouncing off the walls, I’d wave and say, “They’re yours now. Back at 3. Good luck.”

Fatherhood taps into your every emotion — from intense heartache when your 7-year-old is retching into the toilet due to the flu and all you can offer are comforting words and a cold, wet washcloth pressed to her forehead — to bursting pride when your son does something thoughtful and kind for a complete stranger. And there is tremendous pleasure when you realize your daughter’s guitar skills have far surpassed your own and, in her sly way, she let’s you know it.

There are bittersweet tears when they go off to college, and you realize they’re grown up. But there is also great satisfaction when you begin to see the lessons you’ve taught come to fruition.

Ultimately, that’s what fatherhood is about — giving them the tools and instilling in them the values and perspective to make their own way in the world. While it’s difficult letting them go, ultimately it is their life to live.

And it happens so fast. One day you are passing out in the operating room, and the next day your son is not only beating you in H-O-R-S-E but trash-talking as he does it!

There is, however, comfort in knowing that fatherhood is constant and forever. Once a father, always a father, no matter where you are or at whatever stage of life you may find yourself.

Yes, there is nothing more difficult than being a father. But there is nothing better.

That’s why whenever you see kids giving their father a hard time, get their attention, point your finger and say, “Look at him. He’s your father. You only have one. Take care of him!”

Because every day is Father’s Day.