There are 10 seconds left on the clock and Tyler has the ball at half-court. He dribbles and passes to Hayden, who shoots and scores as time expires. The crowd rushes the floor as parents, students and athletes hug and celebrate winning the Unified Sports State Basketball Championship.
While there will be a trophy and a banner to remember the victory, they don’t compare to the joy captured in the moment by athletes who have struggled their entire lives. For these athletes and their Unified partners – individuals without disabilities – the school board recognition, the pep rally and the medals they will proudly wear symbolize far more than a victory in an athletic contest, they signal acceptance.
Because their school and community have embraced Special Olympics Unified Sports, they now join together to share the pride that comes from winning a championship. And why not! As with interscholastic athletics, Unified Sports is about competition, doing the best you can, learning the sport, developing relationships and representing something larger than yourself. For high school principals, Unified Sports can be the foundation for building a positive sports and inclusion culture in schools.
Things to know about Unified Sports
Unified Sports is not intended to take the place of either varsity athletics or Special Olympics. It belongs in its own category. Unified Sports teams are composed of students with and without disabilities. Under the partnership between the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association and Special Olympics Delaware, state champions are recognized in three Unified Sports seasons – flag football, basketball and track and field, which vary in length. Flag football has a six-game schedule followed by playoffs, and basketball plays a minimum of five games. The Unified track and field team follows the same schedule as the varsity program.
A great place to begin is the NFHS Learning Center at www.NFHSLearn.com. It also is important to connect with your state high school athletic/activity association and Special Olympics program. If these two organizations can create a partnership in your state, it will solidify the impact that Unified Sports can have on your school and help the program grow around the state.
As with any sport, the coach must be dedicated, knowledgeable and a capable teacher of the sport, while also having the ability to work with students with disabilities. Schedules and transportation for contests must be arranged along with securing uniforms and equipment. Meetings are held throughout the year to determine interest – just like any other varsity sport.
According to Nate Threatts, Unified Sports head coach at Caesar Rodney High School in Delaware, “All Unified partners and athletes go through tryouts like any other varsity team, but our athletes must prove they are eligible to try out by their behavior in school. Playing time is determined by a student’s performance at practice and behavior in the classroom. An athlete can be benched or lose playing time for lack of focus or effort in school or practice.”
Typically, Unified teams practice three to four days a week based upon available space and the season. An extra day of practice is added during the tournament.
For many programs, the greatest challenge is the availability of space for practice. It is especially difficult to find gym space during the winter season. Since most students with disabilities are also new to afterschool activities, another hurdle may be parental awareness and their support.
The Unified program will only be as good as the administration will allow it to be. While there may be some strong programs, there may be others which are very unorganized and barely meet the minimum requirements. When facing these issues, the principal must make a commitment. It is imperative that the Unified Sports program is treated like any varsity sport. Otherwise, a disservice will be done to these athletes, and the program will fail.
The following are examples of the positive impact of a Unified Sports program:
Middletown High School offers all three Unified sports, and the football games are played under the lights in the stadium, with the marching band and an inclusive group of cheerleaders performing. Players wear their jerseys on game days, and are wished good luck by students and staff in the hallways and cafeteria.
According to Athletic Director Collen Kelley, “Unified Sports has given our students with disabilities a sense of truly being part of a team and being accepted by their school community. Our Unified partners really care about the athletes and want to help them succeed. Whether it is a win or a loss, everyone has fun.”
Woodbridge High School is in the second year of participating in Unified Flag Football and its fourth year with Unified Track and Field. During this time, the school has witnessed a major increase in the confidence of its Unified athletes. They proudly wear their Woodbridge jerseys through the hallways and to home varsity football games on Friday nights, and many took school pictures and senior portraits in their uniform.
Andrew Layton, Unified Sports coach at Woodbridge, believes that “from a Unified partner perspective, we have been fortunate to find great students who are role models for our athletes, and embrace everyone inside and outside the classroom. Best of all, they don’t treat our athletes differently, hold each other to a higher standard, and support and look out for each other.
“As a Unified Flag Football coach, I am grateful for my experiences with these athletes as they not only have made me a better coach, but a better person. The excitement they bring to their craft is contagious. The best part of every game is our post-game dinner, where we get to talk about the game, joke around and focus on something we all have in common – our love for the game of football.”
District leaders seeking to celebrate their students’ abilities rather than their disabilities while also building a culture of inclusiveness, can see that realized through Unified Sports. Every student should have the opportunity to participate and be involved in high school athletics. As an educational leader, it is important to understand that the ultimate reward for anyone who participates in an extracurricular activity is acceptance, friendship and making memories that will last a lifetime. Unified Sports will provide this and more.
Any administrator looking to create a school climate of acceptance, inclusion, recognition and the breaking down of stereotypes, can find the answer in the development of a strong Unified Sports program.
Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald is superintendent of the Caesar Rodney School District in Delaware and a member of the NFHS Board of Directors. Fitzgerald is the NASS 2018 National Superintendent of the Year.