Why an 8-way championship isn’t a “participation trophy”

Posted On June 10, 2019

You knew it was coming. You hoped it wouldn’t, but you knew better.

When the Scripps National Spelling Bee ended in an eight-way tie for first place last week, it was only a matter of time before the cries of “participation trophies” rang out over the internet. And we’re talking minutes, not days.

While the vast majority of commenters on the Bee’s Facebook page were congratulatory, there was one who denounced the result as some sort of politically-inspired plot: “They did not want to hurt the feeling of these little snow flakes and have losers.”

Yes, someone who thinks “snowflakes” is two words had the nerve to criticize young people who can correctly spell “pendeloque” and “bougainvillea.”

But it wasn’t just anonymous yahoos on social media. “What is this, a contest or Menudo?” asked New York Post columnist Johnny Oleksinski, using a musical reference so dated no millennial would have any idea what he was talking about.

“American society is obsessed with treating kids like a bunch of bichon frises and teaching them that ‘Everyone’s a winner!’” Oleksinski continued in a Get-Off-My-Lawn rant titled: “Spelling Bee’s 8-way tie is participation trophy culture at its worst.”

Blah, blah, blah. You already know the rest of the spiel.

Except everyone didn’t win. There were 557 contestants who didn’t win. And millions of others who competed in local and regional qualifying events and didn’t make it to the final event.

I wonder if Oleksinski or any of the keyboard warriors on social media who sought to cheapen these eight students’ accomplishments could spell “erysipelas” without the help of a computer or a dictionary. I highly doubt it. I know I couldn’t.

Fourteen-year-old Erin Howard of Huntsville did.

What about “aiguillette?” Thirteen-year-old Shruthika Padhy of Cherry Hill, N.C., nailed it.

“Cernuous?” No problem for 13-year-old Christopher Serrao of Whitehouse Station, N.J.

These eight students did far more than just participate. According to the New York Times, they went through 20 rounds in a contest that lasted until after midnight, spelling 47 straight words correctly after the ninth-place finisher was eliminated in Round 15. They ultimately forced the event’s pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, to wonder aloud whether there were any remaining words that might stump them.

These kids kicked the National Spelling Bee’s butt. All eight of them. According to the Times, it’s the first time in the 92-year history of the event that there has been more than a two-way tie at the top.

But a bunch of curmudgeons who I will bet regularly misuse “your” and “you’re” would have had them continue on into the wee hours of the morning. For what purpose? To satisfy the demands of strangers that there must be only one winner?

These are the people who would have us believe life is a zero-sum game. If you’re not the winner, you are a loser. “If you’re not first,” as Talladega Nights’ Ricky Bobby would say, “you’re last.”

But life doesn’t really work that way. We are all capable of setting lofty goals and, with hard work and perseverance, attaining them. Some of us follow through, and others don’t. Who is qualified to rank whether one accomplishment is greater than another? What measure would they use?

In sports as well as life, it doesn’t diminish one person’s accomplishment if someone else equals it. LeBron James’ impressive level of success in the NBA doesn’t make Michael Jordan any less great.

And sharing the championship didn’t diminish what these eight kids accomplished last week just south of Washington, D.C. All it meant was Scripps had to pay out eight $50,000 prizes instead of just one.

The contestants, who reportedly studied four to five hours a day to prepare for the Bee, were just fine with it.

“As a speller, you know how hard everyone else has worked and you know how much they deserve to win because you know you’re here with everyone else,” 13-year-old Sohum Sukhatankar of Dallas, one of the winners, told CNN.

That’s a level of maturity that some adults seem to lack.

Categories: iGen