Authors: Matthew J Williams D.S.M.
Department of Education, The University of Virginia’s College at Wise, VA, USA

Corresponding Author:

Matthew J Williams
1 College Avenue
Wise, VA 24293

Matthew J Williams D.S.M., M.B.A., M.S., is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise. His areas of research interest include NASCAR, COVID-19, college athletics, professional sports, and sport management issues.

Participation Trophies along with Grade Inflation Are Hurting More Than Helping


In the early 1900’s we had a philosophy that children who participated in sports would be better citizens in the United States. We believed that sports would allow children to experience responsibility, success, failure, and disappointment in a controlled safe environment. In the last 25 years, times have changed, and we have used sports to reward children with participation trophies regardless of how well they played or their contribution to the team. This change in philosophy has now moved into education and students believe that if they show up to class or do minimal work in the classroom, they should be rewarded with a higher grade than they deserve. This type of behavior has created grade inflation.

Keywords: Participation Trophies, Grade Inflation, student success, citizenship


Recently, there has been a philosophy to eliminate failure, disappointment, and adversity at the sports levels of youth, junior high, and high school through the use of participation trophies. However, as participation trophies have become more acceptable in sports, it has not stopped there. Since the Vietnam war era, we have witnessed the use of grade inflation from K-12 to colleges and universities. This paper will examine the correlation between grade inflation and sports participation trophies.


Participation trophies are trophies that are commonly given to children who participate in a sport or competition. (1)  Since the 1900s there is a common belief that children who participated in sports would benefit from the experience. They would face life lessons such as failure, adversity, and disappointment. Parents believed that sports participation would bring out the very best in their children by improving character, healthy lifestyle, social responsibility, and commitment. But most importantly, we have constantly used sports to learn about authentic life experiences. These life experiences in sports consist of wins, losses, adversity, failures, and sacrifices. These experiences of participating in sports taught them that not everyone on the team would receive a trophy, a ribbon, or recognition. There will always be winners and losers in life, and nothing will change that.There is going to be somebody that gets the job, and there will be somebody who doesn’t get the job. When we give out participation trophies, we ruin the kids for the real world. They must be the best out of the group, and if they aren’t, they won’t get the job. This failure can be used to do better in the next interview. (9)

Participation trophies in sports may be new to some of us; however, the use of participation trophies has been around since the early 20th century. They were awarded to athletes who participated in a high school basketball tournament. The first mention of the idea of participation trophies dates to 1922. (11)The Ohio State Invitational High School Basketball Tournament gave participation trophies to every athlete who played in the invitational, in addition to handing out awards to the winning players. (11)  Participation trophies are commonly known as an acknowledgment for a child who played on a team in which they may not have been a starter, a role player, or even the best player; they just simply showed up to practices and games with little significance to the team’s success.

Is it a given that these participation trophies we give out annually will create a culture of confidence, commitment, success, and sacrifice in these athletes? Getting everyone involved some level of recognition goes a long way toward boosting confidence and promoting future success. It tells the athlete they may not have won, but they gave it their all, and always giving your best is important. (1) Some people argue that they are good. It can make one feel good about themselves because it values their hard work and dedication for contributing to a team. (16) “The idea of a participatory trophy is not to make everyone a winner, but to “acknowledge that the child put time and effort forward and to provide a memento of the experience,” said Honea on Facebook. (14) Whit Honea is the author of the book “The Parents Phrase Book” and has coached sports.

There are also additional benefits to giving out participation trophies, such as acknowledging and recognizing the athlete for their team commitment, team spirit, hard work, and playing time. Participation trophies recognize the time and effort athletes put into every tournament. Receiving appreciation for their hard work and dedication boosts their confidence to take on new challenges in sports and life. (3)

Since we started giving out sports participation trophies in the 20th century, there has always been a philosophical debate that sports participation trophies will either help the child or hurt the child. Then there’s the James Harrison school of thought:” Your participation trophy is killing everyone’s will to compete and entitling a generation to expect rewards without doing jack.  And then there’s the all-kids-are-winners camp, which says mounted pieces of plastic make kids feel special and encourage them to keep playing.” (12)

By giving out the sports participation trophies to everyone on the team, we are constantly looking to see the outcome for the children who receive them. Will it hurt the children in the long run? The children who did nothing productive for the team, were not starters, played very little, and just showed up for practice or games receive a participation trophy even though they were on the team. Trophies used to be awarded only to winners but are now little more than party favors: reminders of an experience, not tokens of genuine achievement. When awards are handed out like candy to every child who participates, they diminish in value (2) “It’s pretty much for a job well done. You made it through the season. Everyone is on different levels, but everyone who goes through the training we put them through should be recognized.” (10)

The move for every child on the team to get a participation trophy has come from the new style parent who believes that every player should get a trophy and that players on the team should not be singled out and should feel included. Participation trophies have also become a way for overprotective parents to get their way. Overprotective parents have used these awards to ensure their child doesn’t have to endure the pain of losing. They are taking away the internal motivation by saying, “it’s okay you didn’t lose; you gave it your best.”  Yes, they gave it their all, but they lost, and that’s it. (9) You don’t get a trophy just for showing up. Trophies were meant to be for people that won and performed the best out of a group. (9)

Are we sending a false message to our children that by playing on the team, they will get a trophy regardless of what they bring to the team? Will the children feel entitled that all they must do is show up and all will be good? Will the child expect this type of philosophy of reward to continue off the field, such as school grades or promotions in work? Trophies for all convey an inaccurate and potentially dangerous life message to children: We are all winners. This message is repeated at the end of each sports season, year after year, and is only reinforced by the collection of trophies that continue to pile up. We begin to expect awards and praise for just showing up — to class, practice, after-school jobs — leaving us woefully unprepared for reality. (2)

Participation trophies in sports has become such a common and acceptable trend to all of us that it has transferred to being acceptable in K-12 and college educational settings. This trend that has been around for a long time is known as grade inflation and can also be referred to as participation grades. In the authors experience in education, students are given additional points for participation in classes at the K-12 level. In college, we extend reward points to students who just attended the class. In both cases, we have created grade inflation. Grade inflation occurs when a teacher or professor rewards a higher grade to a student even though the student did not do quality work, but the student still received a higher grade anyway.

Grade inflation started to become apparent in the early 1960s, the main reason for the grade inflation was due to the Vietnam War. (7)  During the early part of the Vietnam war, it was very contested that male students who were enrolled at the university and colleges would be granted draft deferrals. The anti-Vietnam War movement was strongest on university and college campuses. (7) Still in 1965 this would all change when the Selective Service System reversed its rule on draft deferrals. The Selective Service now would only allow draft deferrals for highly intellectual students that would be granted draft deferrals. In 1965, the Selective Service System announced a change in granting draft deferrals to students enrolled in universities and colleges. No longer would all undergraduate students be deferred. Instead, students would be deferred only if they exhibited high intellectual ability as determined by class rank and scores on the Selective Service Qualification. (7) As college faculty across America were protesting, the new rules that were enforced by the Selective Service professors were threatening to give higher grades than the student had earned. The Chairman of the Sociology Department at Harvard; reacted by exclaiming, “we might grade everyone equally high.”4 In fact, professors throughout the country did just that as a means of registering their opposition to the war. (7)

Teachers or professors are always at the forefront of the conversation about grade inflation. These conversations have positive and negative effects on students simply because they issue grades. There are many different reasons why teachers and professors inflate grades. Fatigue is one of the main reasons. Students have more access to the teacher or professor through email or texting, pleading their case to improve their grades which wears the teacher or professor down. In the authors years of teaching one of the reasons teachers raise students’ grades is that the teacher is worn out by parents and students complaining about the grade that they received. On a more personal level, high school teachers and college professors get worn down from the constant grade grubbing that parents and students put them through. (4) The term grade grubbing refers to the act of a student going to a professor and asking for a grade to be raised for no legitimate reason. Another reasonthe teacher or professor will award a higher grade is simply from fear of threats. These threats come from the parents through emails, phone classes, or in-person conversations. These fears can consist of complaints to the school, school boards, college deans, and college presidents about their teaching, or parents can threaten violence toward them.These teachers worry about being targeted by students and parents for retribution, either through complaints to the school or violence. (4)

Teachers faced additional pressure during the first year of the COVID-19 Pandemic when all students were forced to learn from online classes at home. Most of the students had never had a course online; also, the teachers or professors had never taught online. These problems caused additional pressure on the teacher or professor to be more lenient with grading. In the spring, when the Pandemic shifted thousands of classes online, teachers were encouraged to grade with “grace.” For example, Georgia State University advised its faculty: “Your students have experienced serious disruption in their lives and may encounter inadequate technology, financial difficulties, and other barriers to effective learning. We need to be thoughtful, flexible, and above all, compassionate toward our students and ourselves as we navigate these uncharted waters together.”(5)

Students face many obstacles in K-12 and college. These obstacles range from GPAs, Athletic eligibility, Admittance to colleges, and Scholarship opportunities. These reasons have encouraged grade inflation to take place with pressures to create a positive learning environment for the student. In addition, it will keep more life opportunities open for the student. Grade inflation in a high school means that more students will have good GPAs and better chances of attending higher education institutions. (8)

Grade inflation often creates a positive comfort zone for the student. The student realizes that if they put forth some effort and participate in the class, they will have a realistic chance of passing the class. Grade inflation allows the student to believe that they can do it and gives them an incentive not to give up or quit the course. If you’re failing a class, it can be tempting to say, “I’m not cut out for this,” and stop trying or drop out of school completely. (8) Here is an argument that grade inflation may be useful in some cases, helping students to persist in school and succeed in areas they otherwise might not have pursued. (13)

Although grade inflation has positive benefits for the student, it also has some negative benefits. One of the negative benefits of grade inflation is it creates a false sense of effort and work ethic. Students who are rewarded with grade inflation develop an incorrect understanding of what is needed to be successful in K-12 or college. When high school grades are inflated, students end up with a skewed idea of the amount of effort they need to put into their schoolwork to get good grades. (8) 

Grade inflation that students receive in high school will dramatically affect their success the  student has in the college setting. The student is ill-prepared with work ethic, study habits, and subject matter. The student will expect the same results in college as they had in high school. If the student cannot make an academic adjustment to college work, it could result in the student dropping out of college. Students are often discouraged when they find that they can’t get the same results in college classes as they did in high school. (8) Inflated grades allow students to progress through high school and then into colleges for which they aren’t prepared—a problem known succinctly as “overmatching. (15)

Grade inflation has created a situation where students have not had the opportunity to experience failure or struggles in life. It has instead created a belief that if you just show up and participate, you will receive a grade higher than you deserve. Unfortunately, inflating grades is not showing students any favors. Failure is a part of life that helps us become better. If we don’t learn how to fail, we won’t learn how to achieve. (6)


When society started awarding participation trophies in sports the belief was that if the athlete felt good about themselves, they would take that feeling of success and apply it to everyday life situations. “The idea was if we give kids trophies, if we tell them they’re wonderful, if we tell them they’re special, they’ll sort of develop a sense of fearlessness and then they’ll actually be more willing to do difficult things, and actually, we now have about 20 years of research that shows that’s not true,” said Ashley Merryman co-author of “Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing”. (14) As this trend of participation trophies has continued there is a feeling now that everyone is a winner, and everyone must be treated the same, so no one gets hurt. There is a mentality, among millennials in particular, that everyone’s a winner. Trophies are handed out just for participation. The elite are no longer awarded for their exceptional performance. We don’t want to hurt the feelings of losers so in turn, we denigrate winners by awarding everyone. (6)

Grade inflation that started during the Vietnam war was meant with good intentions by helping college students receive passing grades with a C or better. Doing this would keep these college students in school and would prevent them from being drafted for the Vietnam war. They concluded that professors were reluctant to give students D’s and F’s because poor grades meant young men would be flunked out of school only to be drafted into the war. (6)  Grade inflation did not stop after the Vietnam war but has continued still till this day. The rise continued in the 1980s. (6)  Grade inflation will continue to rise and will be a problem in both K-12 and college until we realize that just because a student participates in class that he or she should get a higher grade than they deserve. The Washington Post’s editorial board, which argued in 2018 that “it is not fair to give grades that haven’t been earned, and the people who end up being cheated are the students themselves.” (13)

Participation trophies and grade inflation have a correlation in that both are used to make the child or student feel better about themselves and to eliminate failure and disappointment in life situations. But by using these two philosophies listed above will hurt the child more than help them.


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