In this past Sunday’s Sun-Beams, I linked to a viral video of a middle school wrestling match and asked you to tell me what you thought about it. Several variations of the story of the match had popped up in my Google Reader last week, and it was also featured on Good Morning America. In some retellings of the story, the able-bodied wrestler, Justin Kievet, decided on his own to let the kid with cerebral palsy, Jared Stevens, win. In others, his coach told him to lose intentionally. The details of how it came to be are sketchy, but in the end I don’t think they matter all that much. Whether premeditated or spontaneous, the win was staged, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. Click to watch.
A few days after I saw the wrestling video, another video surfaced – this time of a teenager with Down syndrome, Scotty Lubkeman, hitting a three-point shot during a varsity basketball game. Some chatter has ensued online (mostly in comments on the video on YouTube) about whether the officials should have called him for what was an obvious travel, but I found the basketball video much more inspiring (and less stomach-turning) than the wrestling video. Click to watch.
I’ve often said that these types of stories, in many cases, are (unintentionally) more about the typical people in the background than the ones with disabilities. The video of Scotty making the three-point shot isn’t powerful because of the basketball; it’s in the chants of “Scotty! Scotty! Scotty!” when he trots onto the court. It’s because of the way the gymnasium erupts in thunderous applause when he makes it.
Scotty is the underdog that everyone is rooting for.
He’s the hero with the odds stacked against him. He’s the kid who rises to the occasion and fulfills the dreams of the kids in the stands. They know him. They believe in him. His ability to score (or not) won’t make any difference in the game’s outcome, but that doesn’t matter. They don’t want the game given to him – they want to see Scotty shine.
Watching the wrestling match is an entirely different experience.
First, the video was initially posted by the able-bodied wrestler’s father. I’m not going to be so crass as to suggest that Justin Kievet’s motives were impure when he threw the match (and “threw the match” is a generous description – give the kid an Oscar for his performance!), but his father’s might have been if he influenced him to do it. If YouTube didn’t exist, would the result have been the same? Would Justin’s dad and coach have been less likely to tell him to throw the match if no one outside of that room would ever have known about it?
Did Justin Kievet let Jared Stevens win in a stunning display of compassion and sportsmanship, as most of the news reports have suggested, or did he do it out of pity or to make himself feel good? Did the video go viral because people thought Kievet did a wonderful thing for that “poor, pitiful disabled kid who’ll never have a good life”? Did the video shine a spotlight on the abilities of people with cerebral palsy, or highlight their weaknesses? Were people inspired by Jared Stevens, the wrestler with cerebral palsy, or did they feel sorry for him?
I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the answers.
I’m not going to say what many have said (and you may be thinking) – that Jared should never have been out on that mat in the first place. I’m a huge proponent of inclusion, particularly in recreational activities where friendships are cultivated. What I’m not a fan of is programs that dictate that everyone must be equal in every way. Competition – even if we’re only competing against ourselves – encourages us to develop and improve, and although it can be taken to an unhealthy level, without it we aren’t challenged to expand our abilities (and our horizons). I’m all for programs which provide accommodations to kids with disabilities in an effort to help them participate fully, but I believe the child should still have some basic level of ability to make robust participation possible.
Sarah Kate has received a couple of basic accommodations to allow her to participate in sports. She was allowed to play down to 8U softball despite her birthday (barely) placing her in the 10U age bracket, and her kick is judged more generously when she swims breaststroke in swim meets. She still must put in the time and effort, though, to participate. It takes her twice as long to reach first base when she hits a ground ball than it does the other girls, and as a result, she is thrown out a lot. But what would it accomplish for the first baseman to refuse to tag the bag? Sure, she’d get on base, but what would she be learning? That she could use her disability to manipulate the system? And what would the first baseman think about having to not play up to her full potential because of Sarah Kate’s limitations?
Of course, Jared was a member of the wrestling team before the match, and practice isn’t quite the same as a competition. I have no doubt that Jared’s presence benefits his team, even if his skill level does not. The fact that Jared was allowed to participate in a match is likely a testament to his relationship with his own coach and teammates. Yet…it’s the opposing coach and wrestler who’ve gotten all the press. I’d much rather hear about how Jared’s teammates embrace him and his unique gifts on a daily basis – quietly, and without a camera rolling.
In the basketball video, the focus was on Scotty being able to do what all of his friends were doing; it was about him being equal to his peers. In the wrestling video, the focus wasn’t on enabling Jared to be as equal as possible; it was about how Jared should be treated differently because of his disability.