The unequal path to elite athletic pursuits

The unequal path to elite athletic pursuits
© istock

The build-up to the Tokyo Olympics is in full swing. There’s Sha’Carri Richardson capturing the country’s attention in the 100-meter dash, the first U.S. Olympic skateboarding team was announced and of course Simone Biles

All of these athletes have endured years of training and hard work, not to mention a delay in their 2020 Olympic endeavors.  

There are various ways in which elite athletes become elite. We’ve all heard stories of athletes who aligned with a sport at a young age, like the Sidney Crosby hype at age 6 (hockey). But there are other athletes who found their path later in childhood, like Misty Copeland who didn’t start ballet until age 13.   

ADVERTISEMENT

More likely are the many athletes who take a more traditional path to pursue their sport: a recreational or community league, followed by trying out for the most competitive team, followed by high school sports, and — for extremely successful high school athletes — playing collegiate sports. The NCAA pipeline to professional leagues is well known, and in fact collegiate competition has been negotiated into the eligibility for the NBA draft (e.g., a minimum of one-year of collegiate competition for draft eligibility).  

The inequities facing marginalized athletes are profound. For athletes with a disability, forget about the added cost of adapted sports equipment, like specialized sport chairs; access to opportunity is the greatest barrier. 

The traditional path for athletes with a disability is often blocked somewhere along their K-12 schooling. This fact has been acknowledged since at least January 2013, when the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a Dear Colleague letter outlining the misinterpretation of sport and extracurricular activities for K-12 students with disabilities. The investigations highlighted a broad set of generalizations and unsophisticated underestimates used to characterize students with a disability.  The letter clarified the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (section 504) and reiterated the existing law that students with a disability have an equal opportunity for participation in nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities.  

One of the more prominent cases of inequities faced by a student athlete with a disability was that of Tatyana McFadden. McFadden, a decorated Paralympic track athlete, was denied the right to compete in track when she was in high school. She sued the Howard County Public School System, located in the state of Maryland, for the right to compete in high school sports.  She won her case, which was the beginning of what is now the Fitness and Athletic Equity Law for Students with Disabilities, a Maryland state law that requires schools to give students with disabilities the opportunity to compete in interscholastic athletics.  

But collegiate opportunities for athletes like McFadden are scarce, and mostly consist of club level competition not directly sponsored by the NCAA. 

ADVERTISEMENT

In 1972, Title IX was a game changer for women’s collegiate sports. And — here’s the win-win — its benefits exceeded those of sport and competition. Since the inception of Title IX, more women have attended a university. It has never been just about sport, it has always been about equity, education and the right to opportunity.  

Despite the advances made under Title IX, there is still much work to be done. More recently, NCAA gender inequities were called into question when a woman basketball player posted pictures online comparing the paltry training equipment supplied to women players with the men’s full service facility.  

There isn’t a comparable Title IX policy for collegiate students with a disability.  Sure, other disability laws exist protecting the rights of people with disabilities (e.g., Americans with Disabilities Act ,ADA, and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA), but these have not been interpreted to guarantee equal access protections for collegiate sport. 

While many of the elite U.S. athletes heading to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics found a path to elite competition with the help of the NCAA, elite Paralympic athletes have not had equivalent NCAA support in their athletic pursuits. Times up.  

Disabled athletes need to be a part of the conversation. A Title-IX mirroring policy for collegiate students with a disability is overdue. It’s time to fully embrace equity, inclusion and diversity for all collegiate students.  

Megan MacDonald, PhD., is an associate professor of kinesiology in the College of Public Health & Human Sciences at Oregon State University and the IMPACT for Life faculty scholar. She is also the director of the early childhood research core at the university's Hallie E. Ford Center for Children & Families and a public voices fellow through the OpEd Project.