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Op-Ed

KEEP MOVING: Mark on participation trophies in the time of COVID-19

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Right about now, we should be rolling into the NBA finals to see if LeBron gets to raise the big trophy, but we’re still playing one-on-none in our driveways. No March Madness. No NBA finals. No College World Series. No Wilmington Sharks. No Wilmington Little League. No one is getting the big trophy this year. It seems like we’re all in the same boat, even LeBron and Michael Jordan. We’re all playing for pandemic participation trophies.

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ight about now, we should be rolling into the NBA finals to see if LeBron gets to raise the big trophy, but we’re still playing one-on-none in our driveways. No March Madness. No NBA finals. No College World Series. No Wilmington Sharks. No Wilmington Little League. No one is getting the big trophy this year. It seems like we’re all in the same boat, even LeBron and Michael Jordan. We’re all playing for pandemic participation trophies.

In the absence of live basketball or baseball, our family watched the ESPN documentary series “The Last Dance” last weekend, about Wilmington native Michael Jordan’s final championship run with the Chicago Bulls. We watched MJ from “the shot” that won UNC the 1982 NCAA Championship, to “the shot” that capped his last title with the Bulls in 1998. If it weren’t for a whole lot of winning shots and victory dances, there would have been no “Last Dance.” Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, right? Win or go home? MJ and the Bulls didn’t settle for participation trophies.

Only a select few like MJ will get Olympic gold medals and raise big NBA championship trophies in their lifetimes, but for nearly 8 billion of us going through the pandemic, participation is the prize. Maybe the pandemic will give us a chance to pause and rethink our cultural disdain for participation trophies. With most of us staying at home the past few months, I bet there are a lot of parents now just wishing their kids could participate.

“Please, Jesus! Just get them out of the house and back on the field, and I swear I will never speak ill of participation trophies again.”

Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we’ve been seduced by the pursuit of “the shot” and the big trophy, and come to believe that the world is neatly separated into winners and losers. If you can’t play with the big dogs, don’t play. By the time they reach middle school, many kids are taught it’s a win or go-home world—where you’re only as good as your last game, and the most important question is, “What have you done for me lately?” Participation trophies are for losers, right?

I like to win, but having an all-or-nothing mindset can take the fun out of playing. Many kids stop playing sports, running, swimming, bicycling, and taking care of their bodies by the time they graduate high school—in part because they’ve gotten the message all too well. If you can’t win, don’t play.

Maybe these uncertain times will serve as a reminder that, for most of us most of the time, participation is winning. And, for those that will earn the big trophy, participation is a huge part of developing and sustaining excellence. If MJ didn’t participate fully in the process of developing excellence, he might not have eventually made the team at Laney High (he didn’t even make varsity until he was a junior).

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon during my morning jogs. More people are participating in moving their bodies, at least in my neighborhood. Each week of the pandemic, more people seem to realize there’s only so much bad news they can take and that stay-at-home guidance doesn’t mean solitary confinement. People seem to be coming out of the woodwork with skateboards, inline skates, dogs and bikes with fat and skinny tires. They’re moving their bodies at their own pace in their own way. I even saw someone dancing at Veterans Park.

Fewer people are competing for big trophies that will rust and rot the same as the little ones. Even aging athletes like myself, who tend to get too competitive, are running relaxed. There’s no race next week, no reason to screw up your face, and grind through an interval set to prove your middle-aged body can take it or beat that young coworker’s time at the office. There’s just the morning sun—and a  chance to move your body and participate fully in another day.

With over 100,000 victims of COVID-19 in America not getting the chance to greet the dawn, I will gladly take my participation trophy.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, 910tix.com. Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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