Lifting Us Up, Bringing Them Down

There’s a certain type of story that’s popping up more and more often on ESPN. It’s usually accompanied by Chris Connelly’s earnest narration, and the maudlin plinky-plinksounds of New Age piano. It’s the story of a mentally- or physically-disabled team member who gets to go in the game with his school’s football, basketball, or baseball team for one final play before season’s end. Almost always, this play ends with the team member in question scoring, while the opposing team feigns defense. These stories are often described as “uplifting” or “inspirational,” but-
“Wait,” you’re probably saying, “you have a problem with this? The one nice thing in a sports world filled with criminals, cheaters, and Woody Paige? You’re an a-hole!”
Well, no. I’m not an a-hole. At least not when it comes to this particular topic. Hear me out: I have no problem with the gesture involved in these situations. It’s a wonderful gesture, and a deserved one for the kids, most of whom spend years playing or working for their teams. Nothing wrong there. Nor is it a problem to let the kids score. Sure, it’s patronizing, but what’s the alternative? Have a kid, who has no real training in how to play the game, get flattened by a nose tackle twice his size? Or get a jumpshot swatted back into his face? A stroll into the end zone or a wide-open jumper are the only viable options.
My issue with these stories is what happens after the players and fans have left the game. The moment of inclusivity is not enough; there are local news stories, and the inevitable SportsCenter package follows soon after. On-field visits from star players and coaches are common, too. This is all fun for the kids, but the designated heartstring-tuggers at ESPN don’t seem to care if it’s healthy, especially for the audience’s view of people with disabilities.
I have never appeared on SportsCenter, but even with my mixed feelings about the quality of the program, I can only assume that it must be freaking awesome. The problem for the kids is: where do they go from there? The number of people who have done something deemed worthy of airtime on SportsCenter is minuscule. If one of these people is not a professional athlete, his or her chance of a repeat performance is practically zero. It’s dangerous for most able-bodied people to cling to dreams of athletic greatness, to say nothing of those with disabilities. Not all of the kids who receive these opportunities are able to recognize that their moment in the game was merely a token of acceptance, and not an actual highlight-reel performance. After they’ve had national television exposure or chances to practice with professional teams, kids’ achievements in the classroom or in personal development can seem insignificant.
But there is a much, much bigger issue here, and is has to do with the ways in which society at large consumes and responds to these stories. Thinly veiled beneath the sentimental music and the tear-soaked interviews is a brazen exploitation of the disabled subjects. The stories are constructed to elicit the same reactions as cute cats or dressed-up babies. Supposedly filming testaments to the common bonds formed between disabled and able-bodied participants, the cameras always seem to look down on their subjects. In this one-minute piece on Kevin Grow, who sunk multiple threes and signed a two-day deal with the 76ers, the SportsCenter anchors essentially say “look how cuuuute!” the entire time, and Steve Levy pokes fun at the non-cursive signature Grow placed on his contract.
A line I often hear in regard to mentally-disabled people is that “they’re always so happy!” Every kid in the world will be pretty content if you give them a uniform and tell them to go play their favorite sport. But the view that ESPN gives us hides the fact that, for every teammate who greets a disabled teammate with a smile and a pat on the back, there are struggles with bullying, isolation, and independence. To gloss over all hardship in favor of a fairy-tale story denies these kids their very humanity. 
These stories – and their ubiquity – send out the wrong message to the masses. They condition us to think that people with disabilities can only succeed in fake, contrived situations, where they are handed success instead of having to earn it. That perception is simply untrue. There was a student in my high school who had Down syndrome. Earlier in his life, it was thought that he would never be able to read aloud in front of an audience, so he and his aide set out to prove this prediction wrong. By the time we were in high school, he would come over the loudspeaker at the end of each day and advertise the menu of the afterschool snack bar. It wasn’t a flashy accomplishment. Unlike Kevin Grow, my classmate didn’t have the power to send ESPN viewers into weepy hysteria. But his feat was real, it was hard-earned, and it allowed him to become a more capable, confident person.
For several seasons, I volunteered as an assistant coach for a Challenger Little League baseball team. Challenger is open to all kids ages six through twenty-one whose disability prevents them from participating in a traditional baseball league. Most of the players are affected by some form of mental limitation. Our Challenger field was located right across from the park where the traditional Little League teams played. We could hear a couple hundred fans cheering from the other field when the ball pinged off a player’s bat; our stadium had bleachers to seat about twenty people. The outfield wall across the way was plastered with advertisements for local businesses, while we had a plain chain-link fence.
But it was okay. The two leagues weren’t the same, but they were equal in that they both fostered self-improvement and rewarded team spirit. None of the kids became jealous watching the “real” teams play under a different set of rules. Challenger League didn’t keep score, but good plays still happened. Kids who couldn’t hold a glove one week would be catching tosses in the air a few weeks later. Whiffs turned to choppers turned to seeing-eye singles. Even the kids who started the season as uninterested outfield grass-pickers would be engaged in the games by season’s end. None of this would be especially interesting to a typical ESPN viewer, but these kids weren’t relegated to the sidelines. They were in the thick of America’s pastime, and they improved with every game.
My classmate didn’t play Challenger baseball, but he played on the high school football team for five years. He donned our school’s green and white uniform for every game, but was limited to patrolling the sidelines until the last contest of his senior year. When the fourth quarter was winding down, he came in at the tailback position, took the handoff, and ran the ball for six points. The fans cheered and the players gathered for a team celebration. Everyone left the stadium smiling, and that was it. There was no trip to MetLife Stadium, no high-fives from Eli Manning, and no viral video about football’s newest superstar. It could have been cool to know someone who was featured on national TV. But we were all starved at the end of the day, so it was even cooler to know what was for snack after school.