I don't know about you, but I used to think that winning a trophy was a pretty big deal. My thinking changed forever last Fourth of July weekend as I sat under a tree and watched as 80-odd pieces of shining hardware were handed out after a local fun run.
In those dizzying minutes my eight-year-old daughter was awarded the seventh trophy of her career (she has nine now), and I won my first. For what? For finishing third in my group—out of four entrants, I was to learn. But even more stunning were the closing remarks of the fun-run director: "If you didn't win a trophy, we have a few extras, so come on up and take your pick."
It is the bronzing of America. From tee-ball beginners to race-walking old-timers, jocks of every age and ability are being rewarded as never before, not just with trophies but also with plaques, ribbons and medallions. And not just for winning, but for placing, showing up and being a good sport, as well.
There seems no relation between the trophy's size and the importance of the accomplishment. If anything, an inverse law prevails: the more obscure the feat, the gaudier the spoils. Towering above my daughter's collection is the 30-inch eyesore of shining wood, gleaming marble and winged goddesses she got for playing on a winless basketball team. In a local pizza parlor I was stopped cold recently by a wedding cake of a trophy at least three feet high, sitting on a ledge where it came within a few inches of the ceiling. It was for a second-place finish in a softball league. "We didn't want to win the title," an employee cracked, "because there wasn't room in here."
A generation ago, joining a bowling league gave one the best shot at taking home a trophy. "In the '60s and '70s you could accumulate a whole houseful just for showing up at the bowling alley," says Sam Varn, a Tallahassee, Fla., trophy dealer and president-elect of the industry's Awards and Recognition Association. "Bowling has elected to go to cash payouts, so now it's soccer, Little League baseball and so on that are giving away what we call participation trophies."
No doubt the trophy glut is part of a movement that has brought self-esteem to the fore. Whether easily won awards ultimately distort one's sense of reality, making also-rans of us all, is an issue best left to pundits and psychologists. One certain winner in all this is the awards industry. The Chicago-based Awards and Recognition Association counts 5,000-odd dealers and manufacturers among its members, but Varn figures there may be as many as 12,000 businesses churning out trophies—some schlock, some not.
John Miller, co-owner of A.J. Schaake Co., a St. Paul firm that has been making awards since 1938, says the trophy chase may be slowing. "I think there's a filtering out of extraneous awards," he says. Still, with the proliferation of awards companies—there are 30 or 40 in the Twin Cities alone—what's to stop the unfulfilled athlete from coming in and buying a gleaming chunk of esteem for as little as three dollars?
"Now and then we get a parent," says Miller, "who wants to mollify the other kid in the family, the one who didn't win the trophy." Then there was the gent in his 40's who commissioned Schaake to produce a dance trophy. "He had us backdate the inscription eight or 10 years, showing he had won a disco contest. He was trying to impress a woman he was dating."
Most trophies are turned out these days with lasers and computers, and often the work is done in a shop just off a company's display room. The industry giant is Midwest Trophy, of Oklahoma City, which fashions cups and trophies for bowl games and the World Series MVP.
Even if your trophy collection is as skimpy as mine, you can take solace in this: Jim Brown, the former Cleveland Brown running back, is in the same league. Brown, special consultant to the Browns, a man who won his share of awards but gave them away, was given a game ball after Cleveland's opening win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 5. The next week, on Monday Night Football, he said he couldn't wait to display the ball in his office. He sounded like a guy who had just won his first fun-run trophy.
David Butwin is a writer who lives in Leonia, N.J., amid his family's many trophies.