Governments, we have learned time and time again, are masters of the noble idea and the nonexistent checkbook.
Many a mandated program has dictated that some grandiose plan be enacted without offering any idea of how to pay for it, leaving school districts or local governments to stretch budgets that already are as thin as Olive Oyl on a diet.
Being the cynic that I am, that was the first thing I thought of upon hearing of the U.S. Department of Education’s ruling regarding athletic participation by students with disabilities.
Clarifying Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the federal government last week set down guidelines for schools in an effort to provide athletic opportunities for all students.
Declaring that the benefits of athletic participation include “socialization, improved teamwork and leadership skills, and fitness” the guidelines have been hailed as the equivalent of Title IX for students with disabilities. But, considering that Title IX still has school districts awash in lawsuits and
discrimination claims, I’m guessing the latest ruling has athletic administrators gnashing their teeth.
The decision was handed down by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, and one of its most important facets is what it doesn’t do, stating that “school districts may require a level of skill or ability of a student in order for that student to participate in a selective or competitive program.” It’s not as though schools are going to be required to keep a handicapped student on the varsity basketball team if that student isn’t qualified to be there.
But schools could be forced to provide alternative opportunities. They might need to start fielding wheelchair tennis or wheelchair basketball teams. They might need to incorporate visual signals for the start of a 100-meter dash in order to accommodate a deaf runner. They might need to provide golf carts for a disabled golfer.
And, you know, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Because, at its core, the decision speaks to the purpose of athletics, particularly at the elementary and high school levels. As high school athletics seem to stray further and further from their intended mission these days, the thought of a school fielding a wheelchair basketball team strikes close to the true meaning of athletics.
You see, the reason for participating in school sports isn’t to earn a college scholarship. It’s not to prepare a student for the club season in their sport. It’s not, necessarily, to win a state championship, although that can be an enriching by-product.
No, the purpose of school sports is, as the Department of Education noted, to improve socialization and teamwork skills and leadership skills. It is to develop habits that can be beneficial for a lifetime. It is to enjoy the benefits of competition, not to gerrymander a winning team by falsifying your address so you can play for a particular high school program.
And there’s no reason those benefits shouldn’t be available to anybody who has a desire to participate, regardless of ability or disability.
So, no, there’s nothing wrong with schools being nudged to develop teams — or, more realistically, district-wide squads — to accommodate students with limited capabilities.
But I’m glad I’m not the one who has to figure out the budget for such an endeavor.