HBO’s Real Sports Looks Into America’s ‘Trophy Culture’

Alex Pfeiffer White House Correspondent
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On HBO’s return of “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” Tuesday night, Bernard Goldberg looks into the current culture of handing out trophies to children just for showing up, and how this trend potentially leads to damaging psychological effects.

“We want to make each child feel special,” says Brian Sanders, president of i9 Sports, the largest youth sports franchise in the nation.

How does he make them feel special?

By giving them all trophies. At an event outside Tampa, Fla. with 650 kids in attendance all will receive trophies, there is a division champion award and everyone else receives an “All-Star” trophy, both prizes are the same size.

This isn’t just a phenomenon with his sports league. Janet Anderson is the regional commissioner in Los Angeles for AYSO Soccer and she told Goldberg for her 1,200 under-eight players, “If there name is on the roster, they get a trophy.”

This means that players who don’t even show up can receive an award. On top of that, her league doesn’t keep score, no one is a loser.

And what happened when Anderson decided to stop giving trophies to all participants for players over age eight? “Some parents went out and bought their own trophies for the whole team,” explained Anderson to Goldberg.

It isn’t just children who are winners. The trophy industry now has sales around $2 billion at the retail level, says Scott Sletten of JDS Industries, one of the world’s largest trophy wholesalers. Sletten’s parents started the South Dakota business in 1972. Then, the mom-pop shop had sales of $20,000 to $40,000 a year. JDS now has sales of over $50 million a year.

This culture arises out of a movement beginning in the late 20th Century to push the importance of self-esteem in education. “The state of California had a task force in the 1980s to study self-esteem, and we thought especially for kids in struggling communities if we just told them they were great, they would believe it, and then they could achieve more because they were certain they were great,” said researcher Ashley Merryman.

This movement has apparently spiraled out of control. “Preschoolers sometimes now sing a song to the tune of ‘Frère Jacques’ that goes like this, ‘I am special I am special look at me look at me,'” according to San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge.

This push to make every child feel special leads to problems in college. A study highlighted in Goldberg’s report shows that a third of college students say they deserve a B grade as long as they attend most classes in a course.

Dr. Robert Cloninger, professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine has been studying the effects of rewards with rats in mazes. He found that rats that received food just for working their way through the maze were lazy. “They will not be fast runners to get to the trophy, and they will quit easily the moment they are no longer getting rewarded.”

He concludes that children won’t be able to succeed if we pretend that they don’t fail. Cloninger says, “We have to get over the notion that everyone has to be a winner in the United States, it just isn’t true.”