How Dare You Wear That Varsity Letter?

Michael Kelley will never make it to the Final Four. Not this year and not any year. He is both autistic and has Down syndrome. He plays on the special needs basketball team for Wichita East High School. He lives in a world most of us cannot imagine, but I am willing to guess that when he is on the basketball court, he does not feel like “special needs,” but special.

Michael KelleyIf you have ever played a sport – any sport – for any level of athletics, from elementary school or Little League to professional sports, you know how you felt the first time you put on the uniform.

For most of my collegiate athletic career, I rode the bench. Oh sure, I got in for “junk time,” but even at my level, my sweat at practice and my muscle soreness and all that, was just as real as the guys who would go on to being all-conference players. I accepted it. It was part of the deal. But, even in warm-ups in front of the meager to moderate crowds, wearing that uniform filled me with unbelievable pride. It represented my hard work and dedication. I was content. I will be forever grateful to my coach for letting me “suit up.”

Mike Nahrstedt writes for FOX Sports out of Kansas City. In an article entitled: “Unfathomable: Special needs student forced to remove letterman jacket,” we are treated to the surreal reality of entitlement and self-centeredness versus common sense.

Michael Kelley played for the special needs team at Wichita East. They practiced, they played and they did the best they could. At season’s end, Michael Kelley’s mother bought him a varsity letter for his letterman jacket. The kid put it on, and a doo-doo storm erupted at Wichita East like you wouldn’t believe.

From Nahrstedt’s article we learn that several parents complained; several teachers complained and the principal complained. The school administrators thought about this heavy issue as well, and they decided it was not appropriate.

Count your blessings

It is not the place of this blog to talk about religion. I do not have a child who has Down syndrome and autism. It cannot be easy. I am at a loss for words to adequately express my wonder at the parents and teachers who objected to this child wearing a letter.

Is there no compassion among these people? No sense of “godliness?” No appreciation for the simple fact that the Michael Kelley’s of the world will not be destined for college, or graduate school, or careers or for the full blessings afforded to those of us without such boundaries?

Before we go any further, Wichita Northwest High School does allow its special needs team to wear the varsity letter; there is no set, district-wide policy. The policy resides in the hearts and intellect of the Wichita East parents, teachers and administrators. I must express that intellect is very ethically flawed.

Wichita East apparently just won the Class 6A state championship in boys’ basketball. That is probably a pretty big deal to them – and it is within the context of their region and this particular year, but I wonder if they figured the accomplishment would somehow be sullied by the special needs students also wearing the varsity letter?

I wonder what ethical lessons are being taught to the varsity players. What if several of the varsity players had stepped up and defended the special needs team? Or do the players, their parents and several teachers view the special needs kids as oddities, comic relief and a clown act?

Yes, I can hear the arguments pouring forth. They will most probably attempt to tell us that the varsity letter is “special.” That it represents hard work and dedication. I get it, but this is not a “Rudy” scenario. This is not the case of a legitimate fourth-string bench-sitter getting the stuffing pounded out of him by a 300 pound lineman; this is a special needs child who is playing his heart out against other special needs kids who are trying to do their best.

There is a petition floating its way around the internet trying to get Wichita East to change its policies. No petition is needed. What is needed is a reality check.


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