Any millennial who competed in youth sports will remember the awards ceremonies that followed every season. You may remember, if you were on a losing team, receiving a useless participation award that was not nearly as impressive as the two foot tall trophies given to the champions. If that is the case, you will remember wondering why you even got that little trophy at all. Receiving that insignificant award didn’t make you feel better. So, what was the point? Over the last thirty years, Americans have seen that we often create wider divisions in the name of perfect equality.
That imperfect pursuit of equality was recently the theme of an episode of the Nickelodeon show “Henry Danger”. The episode, titled “Henry and the Woodpeckers”, focuses on the titular character, Henry Hart’s (played by Jace Norman) struggles coaching his little sister Piper’s (Ella Anderson) peewee basketball team. The Woodpeckers are the worst team in the league and they don’t seem to even care. Not only do they not understand what a lay-up is but the practices are so lax that one member of the team brings a taco salad to eat on the bench. One might assume that the episode would spend most of its time in homage to “The Bad News Bears” or “The Mighty Ducks”, but in fact it only takes a training montage that’s roughly a minute long to turn the team around. This success comes from Henry’s free use of constructive criticism and his team’s positive response to a coach who actually cares. In his first game as coach, Henry instructs his players and gets the dormant crowd of parents to cheer for their kids, which leads to a one point victory. This method of coaching, however, does not sit well with the Swellview Tween Athletic Board. (Which is humorously headed by a character named Ms. Weiner.) The Board, who refer to themselves as STAB, summons Henry for a meeting where they berate him and instruct him to change his coaching methods. Shouting instructions to his team could “make the children feel bad”, parents cheering for their children could make the other team feel “less than”, and not ensuring that each child has the same exact experience is extremely harmful to the children’s emotional well-being according to STAB. STAB films all the games from then on and ensures that Henry acts according to their will. Henry obliges to their demands and no longer criticizes and silences the cheering parents. Unfortunately for Henry, he commits a grievous error: rewarding excellence. After defeating the best team in the league, Henry presents the team’s high scorer with a rather ostentatious trophy. Henry is dragged into another meeting with STAB shortly afterwards where he is directed to strip the little girl of her trophy and to present all members of the Woodpeckers with participation trophies so no one feels bad. (Even though the team audibly congrats little Sophie on her accomplishment.) All of this does not stop the Woodpeckers from continuing to beat their opponents by roughly twenty points every game, so STAB decides to make things fair…by lowering the other team’s basket to chest height. The Woodpeckers are, in the name of equality, forced to continue shooting at a basket at regulation height. In the episode’s final scene, Henry decides to damn the consequences and defy STAB. He returns to his original coaching methods and the Woodpeckers win by one in the final seconds of the game. Henry then presents STAB with the “useless”, “pointless”, and “disgusting” participation trophies that he had been forced to give his team.
This episode more than represents the practices of youth sports organizations in America since the 1990’s. It is the picture of what “soft despotism” looks like. In the pursuit of equality, we often make things less fair for those who work the hardest to achieve success. The lowering of one team’s hoop is a prime example of that. In our political world one could point to plans offered by many that would tax the “one percent” (which includes people who make six figures by the way) at over half their earnings and redistribute the wealth that they earned to others in order to level the playing field. STAB explains their actions by telling Henry that it is their duty to make sure that “no kid ever loses or feels bad”. Rewarding mediocrity, which is what STAB does in the episode, only creates more mediocrity and eventually causes the standards of society to drop. Hard work and failure are essential to becoming a successful human being. By rewarding failure we teach our citizens that they do not have to grow and that the level at which they currently are is good enough. Henry says as much to STAB after they lower the opposition’s hoop.
But don’t you see? Sometimes it’s good to when a kid loses and feels bad. The Woodpeckers used to lose and feel bad but that’s what made them want to practice harder and get better! And now they’re winning and they feel great! Don’t you see? Sometimes kids need to experience failure in order to grow. (Henry Danger)
This episode also unveils a crucial flaw of the authoritarian mindset. Whenever Henry begins to make a well-reasoned and articulated argument against STAB’s policies (and they hear things that they don’t want to hear) they literally turn out the lights in order to make him quiet. You see, the authoritarian does not want an open and honest debate. The authoritarian does not want to hear that what they believe is wrong and that there may be another way to act. They don’t like this because in their head, they are perfect and all-knowing. Speak out against them and they will silence you. This is the way with STAB just as it was with the Nazi’s, the Soviets, and every other despicable tyranny to ever exist on Earth. If you speak out you will be discredited, called a hypocrite, and you will be silenced.
Scrutiny, truth, and courage are the three most powerful weapons that we have to stand up to our governments, our media, our school systems, our crooked businessmen, and everyone else who would lie, trick and deceive you into following what they say simply because they say it. Scrutiny is where you investigate. When something seems fishy, look into it. Find what doesn’t fit together and build the puzzle. The result of this action is truth. Truth shines a harsh and glaring light into the eyes of the deluders and the demagogues. Truth gives you power over them and makes them fear retribution. The truth is the greatest power that the people of a democratic republic can have. Learn the facts. Take the time to invest in a further research of the stories that are told to you by the media. Read multiple sources and find what really lies between the lines. Then have the courage to make it known. Without courage none of the work that you can do will have any meaning. Just figuring out the truth for yourself is a courageous act beyond anything that Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner could ever accomplish. The people still have the power in America. The internet has made this power more accessible to regular people than ever before. It has also given this power to the deceivers, and that is why we need people to research, find the truth, and form intelligent opinions on what is happening in the world. Yes, the truth will set you free, but it can also help you preserve that freedom.
Henry Hart was courageous in the face of the Big Brother-esque STAB. The American founders and millions upon millions of others who sought justice and stood up for what was right have come and gone, leaving us a better world. These heroes saw the truth that authoritarian dictators and divine right kings were false rulers. Those tyrants’ power was based in lies that they were above average men. Do not think for a second that those types of people do not exist today in our own country. They do, just look at STAB. I ask you, dear reader, does this make you uncomfortable? Good. The truth is supposed to do that. Just like it is good for a kid to lose and feel bad so they’ll practice and win; it is good for a person to see the lies they’ve been told and feel bad so they can be driven to investigate the truth and to think. Plato said this sort of thing in the cave allegory. The people on the surface might hate you for exposing them, but you will know the truth and you will have done what is good, like Henry Hart. Equality isn’t manufactured. It’s natural and exists among all mankind. It exists to give us all an equal chance at success. The work that you apply to that equality is what will make you successful, not a participation trophy or a hand-out.