Zach Johnson joined a prestigious club on Sunday, not only because he is just the 43rd Masters winner, but also because, with his victory, he became a member of Augusta National, which is by definition a prestigious club. His green jacket serves as proof of membership. He will never need a number or tag on his bag; instead, he need only strut into the clubhouse with his newly tailored blazer.
The jacket also indicates the greatness of his achievement. And that’s what trophies, medals, cups and jackets are meant to do in the sporting world: to commemorate a job well done.
On closer inspection, however, the traditional prizes for winning sporting events seem slightly strange, certainly impractical and even a bit humorous. They also make claims about the nature of the sport.
Take the Masters and golf, for example. There is really no practical use for Johnson’s green jacket (the $1.305 million are a different story). Except on St. Patrick’s Day, he can’t rightly wear it out. He will instead be forced to wear it around his house, catching as many glimpses of himself in as many reflective objects as he can.
But what happens if he puts on some weight in the next couple of years? Can he go to the tailor and ask to have the shoulders taken out? The only time it will really be acceptable for the 31-year-old from Iowa City to wear his new pick-up is at next year’s Champions Dinner on Tuesday of Masters week, an event for which he will also have the honor of selecting the menu. But even then, he’d make more of a statement by not wearing it, because there will be those, like Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods, who will have to choose between their multiple green jackets. Picture Tiger walking into his closet. “Hmmm, Elin, I can’t decide which to wear. The 1997 model is slightly retro, but it’s a little small and has definitely faded.”
It’s also typical of golf and the social stigmas attached to the game that the prize for its most prestigious tournament is a dinner jacket. Tennis, which shares many of golf’s stereotypes, hands out an equally polite and proper prize at its most prestigious event, Wimbledon. There, the winner has the pleasure of hoisting an oversized, gaudy plate—great for either an immense Thanksgiving turkey or an empty living room mantel.
The Tour de France also offers, among other prizes, a piece of clothing to its winner: the notoriously hideous yellow jersey. Unlike the green jacket, however, the jersey serves a useful purpose: signaling to every biker in the field who’s winning.
American professional sports have really bought into the bigger-is-better attitude when it comes to trophies, and none has done so more than the NHL. The Stanley Cup is easily the most impractical of trophies. Someone someday decided that it was important for every single player on every single team that has ever won the Stanley Cup to be named somewhere on the body of the trophy. So, for years, layers of silver were added to the base. As a result, it is unnecessarily large. At a certain point, enough was enough, however, so rings have begun to be retired. Furthermore, can you think of any way you’d rather spend your off-season less than being followed around by men with black suits, white gloves and a massive black trunk? It is nothing but a hassle to have to take the Stanley Cup home with you on vacation. But then again, would you expect anything less of the hockey community than to commemorate victory with an impractically large drinking vessel?
And what about gold medals? Not everyone wants a chunk of precious metal for his or her hard work and dedication, especially one suspended from a ribbon. An Olympian could never bring himself to sell a gold medal and in doing so extract its real worth, so instead he’s forced to keep it locked in a case. But that’s probably what the IOC is banking on: that after all of your hard work as a financially unstable amateur athlete, you will never be able to benefit directly from your Olympic accomplishments. And finally, if you ever take your medal out from its hiding place, a young child will indubitably tug it from its ribbon, rendering it unwearable.
And thus, being the Ivy League and Yale athletics sycophant that I am, I suggest to you that the most manageable, most practical and most socially acceptable athletic award out there is the ring. You can wear it out, it’s hard to steal, and, for the most part, it looks attractive. It’s often understated, and when it’s not (see the 2007 Yale Football rings), it’s just gaudy enough to make everyone who sees it jealous. Something we at Yale are pretty used to.
Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on Tuesdays.