A mechanical carousel that takes coins lies in the center of a Florence park, but no one rides it. Some slides and swings comprising a small jungle gym can be found at the very edge of the park, but no one plays there.
Directly across from the carousel is a fenced-in patch of shoddy grass. This is where everyone is. Playing soccer.
Probably between the ages of 6 to 17 — there were no interviews, as this reporter cannot speak Italian — a bunch of kids play. There are no enforced rules, no refereeing, no adults. Stumbling upon a game, I sit down on the sidewalk and watch for a while. They’re having fun, with some fights and arguments as interludes, but on the whole they’re just smiling and playing.
Sports have become an empire unto itself — 24/7 screeching about who’s best, Amateur Athletic Union coaches driving their players into madness and an emphasis on focusing on a single skill until it has been drilled into the easily molded children’s brains.
This brings us to participation trophies.
Once a year, when the tide of sports news is at its lowest, a debate begins. Are the kids too soft? Will the millennials eventually get things done? Should we give out participation trophies?
No. Yes. Yes.
“Participation Trophies Send a Dangerous Message,” a New York Times headline read in October 2016. “As in sports as well as life,” Times contributor Bettey Berdan wrote, “it is fact that there’s room for only a select few on the winners’ podium.”
This is a trash opinion.
Adorning the shelves of my childhood room are plenty of participation trophies. Baseball, basketball, soccer, even karate. I no longer play competitively in any of these fields, although saying that I once played competitively would be a bit of an exaggeration. I made it, I think.
I don’t rest on those laurels, but they do mean a lot to me. They’re markers of things I accomplished. I made it through an entire season: the exhausting practices and the splinters in my butt from riding the bench.
To not congratulate today’s kids with an emblem for a job well done seems more like a reflection of ourselves than the futures of the elementary schoolers on their fourth-grade soccer teams.
Winning’s not important. It’s nice, but it’s far from the biggest lesson we can teach those growing up. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but the fact that you put yourself out there to try is much more crucial.
I miss recreational sports. Knowing that all of your friends would be in the same gymnasium as you playing together is one of the best parts of growing up. And now, looking back, I have some pieces of plastic reminding me of those good times.
They may be worth less than a dollar, but they’re also priceless.