The handing out of participation trophies for youth sports- mostly recreational youth programs- has become one of the most contentious of all issues in recent memory, and to be honest I don't see how the issue can ever be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Much like the abortion debate, participation trophies raise what could be called "first principles" people; views are deeply philosophical and unlikely to be swayed.
Those opposing the trophies are adamant that people should not be rewarded simply for participating, that it reinforces the idea that striving for excellence and winning are no longer important. Just trying is enough to deserve recognition. If everyone receives an award it cheapens the idea of "earning" something. I certainly understand this point of view, but for youth recreation sports it is a view that is far too narrow minded, fails to realize the point of youth sports, and also fails to realize that awarding such trophies and rewarding excellence are not mutually exclusive.
Participation is in fact one of the goals of youth sports. There is so much research indicating the positive impact of youth sports (for the sake of this issue we are not addressing issues regarding the quality of the coaching and guidance the players are receiving) that simply participating is something that should be encouraged, and awarding these trophies is great reinforcement.
Now there are some sports where a township youth program has enough participants to have a league unto itself, and so if records are kept there will be a winning team; the issue of whether records should be kept is also one I'll reserve for another post. In other sports, lacrosse comes to mind, many towns only field one or two teams per grade level and compete against other towns. Arguments against these trophies usually arise in the first instance.
Here's the point: there is no reason why a town program can't acknowledge participation for everyone AND give a second award to a team that has been deemed the league "winner." Further, there is nothing preventing a team from giving out its own team awards that do reward exemplary effort within their team, whether it is an award for hustle, batting average, sportsmanship, ground balls scooped, assists, or any other skill the coaches want to emphasize. I would strongly encourage these awards, much more so than an award for simply being the "winner," as they help teach important life lessons and remind the players what skills the kids should work on if they desire to achieve excellence in the sport.
Since having fun is also a crucial element of youth sports, and one of the reasons players stay with sports- the fact that 80% of youth players opt out of youth sports by age 13 is distressing to say the least- I would also encourage coaches to hand out some "goofy" awards, though they must be careful not to conceive them in a way that is embarrassing to the player and not to give those awards to only the least talented players on the team.
The bottom line is that there is no shortage of things that youth players can receive awards for, and that participation is certainly a category worthy of recognition, even if it goes to everybody. However, opponents of these awards have some legitimate concern if there are not also awards going out to players to reward excellent or exemplary performance. One simple way of doing this is to have your youth league/program create a "team of the year" award to reward the team that is recognized as the one that best embodies the values of the league and might be seen as a "model" team. Yes, there will be those that will object to such a selection; there is no getting around that. There are always parents (and coaches, and players for that matter) that feel that their kids team is always the most deserving. That's life, but like all things that are voted on, and where there are "winners" and "losers," as long as the system is beyond reproach you will find that these parents voices will get drowned out.
So reward participation, but find lots of other things to reward as well. You will find that the benefits far outweigh the "harm" of acknowledging those that "simply show up and get something." For those that have made participation trophies an issue, it is understandably a serious issue, but, frankly, it should not be an issue at all.