Odds and Evens Playing Nicely Together


Unified Sports provides people with and without ID (intellectual disabilities) the opportunity to play on the same sports team, creating a space for friendships, physical activity and fun.

The classic image of the young girl with Down syndrome running with determination across the finish line to the cheers of her families, friends and coaches has always done what it is intended to do—let you know of the impact that Special Olympics has on the athletes, fans, teammates, coaches, volunteers, families and anyone who appreciates human exceptionality. And while that optic has helped elevate the worldwide Special Olympics movement to unprecedented support and popularity, it is only the surface of Mrs. Eunice Shriver’s legacy.

Special Olympics is an organic movement. It expands its horizons, its vision, its reach and its beliefs based on common human needs. One could get away with saying that its strategic plan is based on predictive analytics, machine learning and exploiting patterns. The academics would say that “the core of predictive analytics relies on capturing relationships between explanatory variables and the predicted variables from past occurrences, and exploiting them to predict the unknown outcome.” In my opinion, the evolving Special Olympics movement is based on something much less mathematical and devoid of statistical forecasting. It is based on “watching people.”

The visionaries at Special Olympics were indeed people watching when they conceived, implemented and grew the “unified games.”

Revisit the opening paragraph of this article and imagine the tenfold increase of joy, excitement and exuberance if, instead of cheering the Special Olympics runner, you were awaiting her handing you the baton to finish the lead she ferociously provided.

That is the essence of “Play Unified.” According to Special Olympics, here is the “raison d’etre” for Unified Sports:
Unified Sports provides people with and without ID (intellectual disabilities) the opportunity to play on the same sports team, creating a space for friendships, physical activity and fun. Research on “Unified Sports” has found that Unified Sports athletes experience improved social competence and social inclusion while decreasing problem behaviors.
By consistently challenging the negative perceptions of people with ID and demonstrating their capabilities, Unified Sports creates “bridges to social inclusion” in the community.
Athletes and partners benefit from Unified Sports in a number of ways. First and foremost, Unified Sports is a fun, challenging experience for athletes and partners that allows them to improve their sports skills and be part of a team.

Had the 1960s been free of the public’s stigma, discomfort and prejudices towards individuals with intellectual disabilities, I am confident that the Special Olympics would have been a “unified” model from the beginning. Mrs. Shriver knew she first had to get the Special Olympic athletes off the bench and onto the playing fields if a total inclusionary climate could ever be achieved. That’s how organic things evolve.

The Special Olympics Unified sports teams consist of “players” (athletes with intellectual disabilities) playing alongside team “partners” (athletes without intellectual disabilities; but with their fair share of “neuro-typical” distractions). It’s the ultimate example of “you need a program to tell who’s who.” An interesting “aside” is the assignment of numbers on the football jerseys; the “players” are given “even” numbers and the “partners” are assigned “odd” numbers. How appropriate that finally the “neurotypicals” are identified as “odd.” Perhaps this “evens” the score.

While the Unified Sports category was first introduced in the mid 1980’s, it appears to be the “best kept secret” in Special Olympics. Case in point refers to my own community agency in Chattanooga, The Orange Grove Center. We were supporters, promoters and participants in the Special Olympics since the inception of Special Olympics in 1968. We have fielded athletes and teams in virtually every Special Olympics sport and competed in local, state, national and world games. Our trophy display case attests to our long and deep affiliation, as well as our achievements. Somehow the Unified Sports arena never appeared on our radar screen.

Hal Baker, coordinator of our Department of Health Promotion, Leisure, Recreation and Physical Activity (where our Special Olympics program is housed), has been involved with Special Olympics since the time Mrs. Shriver led 1,500 athletes into Chicago’s Soldier Field and declared, “Let the games begin.” Hal has led several state regional Special Olympic programs in the South and raised his eyebrows when he first heard about Unified Sports only six months ago.

Hal said, “I feel like I’ve been living under a rock; how did I miss this?” Hal didn’t spend too much time musing over missed opportunities, for he had work to do. The day after he learned that Special Olympics had created this incredible opportunity for true inclusion, he started to organize Orange Grove’s first Special Olympics Unified Sports team, “The Orange Crush’s Unified Flag Football Team.”

He quickly recruited a number of individuals supported by Orange Grove, as well as several “partner athletes” from the community. He painted the lines on the practice field based on the rules of Special Olympics’ Flag Football, recruited a coach, bought some balls, blew into his shiny new whistle and declared, “Huddle up, it’s time for football.”

Several days after the first practice, Hal was sitting in his office and heard the door open. Looking up from his desk Hal found himself looking into the belt buckle of a huge man in his late 20’s. In a voice that can only be described as “marshmallow mouth speech” (garbled, broken and somewhat muffled) the big guy said, “I wannnaplay futbal.”

Munson Leonard is six foot four, strong, sturdy and broad chested. In another place, another time, and perhaps with a more mainstream neural circuitry, he probably could have played left tackle for any SEC football powerhouse. But while he had an admirable mesomorphic body type, it was evident that he was more of a “player,” than a “partner.” Munson lived in the community, worked as a bagger at a local grocery store and lived with a brother. Hal was unable to find out how Munson discovered that there was a newly formed football team, but there he was, and he wanted to play football.

Munson was not officially enrolled to receive services at Orange Grove and wasn’t eligible to be a member of an Orange Grove Special Olympics sports team, but Hal kept hearing Munson’s plea. “I wannaplay futbal.” Hal looked carefully at the Special Olympics Unified Flag Football Rule book and couldn’t find any description, criteria or qualifying characteristics that defined a “partner”. With the same raised eyebrows that he first showed when he first heard about the Unified Sports program he said, “I think we got ourselves a ready-to-go, bona fide flag football playing partner.” So, in the truest sense of inclusion, Munson will be playing with the Orange Grove Crush Unified Flag Football Team. He will be a “partner” huddling up with the “players” – and personifying what “unified” is really all about.

Unified flag football is a flag worth fighting for. •
In his 87th year, the artist Michelangelo (1475 -1564) is believed to have said “Ancora imparo” (I am still learning). Hence, the name for my monthly observations and comments.


Rick Rader, MD, Editor-in-Chief, EP Magazine Director, Morton J. Kent Habilitation Center Orange Grove Center, Chattanooga, TN

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