Anxious parents of high school athletes keep calling the Connecticut headquarters of the Eastern College Athletic Conference. They want to know: Will my daughter be able to play for a league title in wheelchair basketball? Will my son be able to compete in sled hockey as a varsity athlete? What about sitting volleyball, wheelchair rugby, and goalball?
The ECAC’s answer: Yes, yes, yes.
This fall, the ECAC becomes the first collegiate athletic conference to offer NCAA-sanctioned events and varsity-level competition in adaptive sports. During the current school year, the ECAC expects athletes with disabilities to vie for championships in swimming, track and field, and wheelchair basketball. In the near future, the conference plans to add championships in sled hockey, goalball (a team sport for the visually impaired, using a ball with bells in it), sitting volleyball, rowing, and tennis.
Five years from now, ECAC leaders hope, roughly 1,000 athletes with disabilities will be competing in several sports.
“For athletes, it means the opportunity to play for their school,” said Joe Walsh, president of Adaptive Sports New England, a Massachusetts nonprofit organization that aims to increase sports participation for children and young adults with visual or mobility impairments.
“They identify themselves as athletes. That’s part of who they are.
“Now, they get to make that part of their college experience, instead of it being separate from their college experience. They can be part of a varsity sports program, and that’s the same message high school athletes who don’t have disabilities get about their future.”
Previously, if wheelchair basketball players wanted to play in college, they were limited to schools that offered essentially club programs, such as the universities of Illinois, Alabama, and Wisconsin-Whitewater.
“What it means is our student-athletes are valued and recognized on the same level as their able-bodied peers on campus as varsity athletes, and that’s never happened before in wheelchair basketball,” said Stephanie Wheeler, head coach of USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball and of women’s wheelchair basketball at Illinois.
Participants in other adaptive sports faced similarly limited options. Generally, they could play at the club level at a handful of schools, attend a college that serves as a Paralympic training site, or earn a spot on a team with all able-bodied athletes.
Since adaptive sports teams typically fall outside athletic department oversight and often involve a mix of college students and community members, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what opportunities exist and where.
“They see how they are not equal to the other athletes on our campus,” said Wheeler. “They notice it in facilities, in access to the complete educational and athletic experience that other students are receiving on our campus.
“They see that they’re not experiencing college in the same way that those student-athletes are.
“On that level, it’s exciting for them. It’s a huge first step.”
A model and a vision
The ECAC model will place an emphasis on inclusion. And that will be achieved in different ways for different sports.
For swimming and track and field, adaptive athletes will join existing teams. In wheelchair basketball, roster spots will be open to wheelchair-dependent athletes as well as able-bodied players who compete in wheelchairs. The same mix of participants will be eligible for other adaptive team sports such as sled hockey, sitting volleyball, and goalball.
To explain how that mix will work, adaptive sports advocate Ted Fay references a Guinness beer commercial that features a pickup wheelchair basketball game. Of the six players shown, only one uses a wheelchair off the court. To preserve opportunities for wheelchair-dependent athletes, the ECAC is proposing that league rules allow up to two able-bodied athletes per team on the court at one time.
“The ‘normal’ basketball that society knows is stand and play, run and play, jump and play,” said Fay, a sport management professor at SUNY-Cortland and ECAC senior adviser on Inclusive Sport. “We’re saying there’s another basketball discipline, wheelchair basketball, where you sit and play.
“You need to be well-trained for wheelchair basketball. You need to learn how to manipulate a chair, and shoot and dribble from a sitting position.
“The idea is we reach out to the whole campus population and say, ‘If you want to sit and play with your brother, your sister or your friend, you can. But you’ve got to learn how.’ ”
Another aspect of the ECAC’s vision is that adaptive competitions will count in team scoring. So swimmers, track and field competitors, and other athletes with disabilities will participate in events that can add to their school’s point totals at major meets.
The ECAC is adding adaptive sports because, as conference president/CEO Kevin McGinniss said, “We are structured in such a way that we can make an impact right out of the gate that other conferences would have difficulty in doing.”
The ECAC is the nation’s largest athletic conference, consisting of 300-plus member schools spread across 16 states and multiple divisions, including more than 90 in New England and more than 45 in Massachusetts. Boston College, Boston University, Harvard, Northeastern, MIT, Merrimack, and Tufts are among the schools that compete in the ECAC.
They take advantage of a league structure in which member schools can selectively enter teams in the conference’s competitions. For example, a member school can participate in the ECAC in wheelchair basketball and Division 3 women’s ice hockey, but place other teams in other leagues and other divisions.
Advocates such as Fay hope that kind of flexibility will encourage schools to add adaptive sports.
Finding the athletes
The ECAC decided to start with swimming, track and field, and wheelchair basketball partly because those sports don’t require a lot of additional resources. With swimming and track and field, it will be likely a matter of simply adding a few athletes to existing teams.
The adaptive events proposed for track and field include shot put, discus, long jump, and the 100-, 400-, 800-, and 1,500-meter races. In swimming, the proposed events are the 50- and 100-yard freestyles, the 100-yard backstroke, and the 200-yard individual medley.
Eight ECAC schools already play men’s wheelchair basketball and four play women’s wheelchair basketball at a club level. So the wheelchair basketball competition will start with officially designating those teams as varsity programs and forming an ECAC league.
The ECAC and its advisers are still calculating costs. They will vary from school to school, depending on what the institution already has in place and what it plans to offer. According to Fay, the biggest new expenses will likely be accessible transportation and adaptive equipment.
Anticipating concerns, McGinniss emphasized that the conference would “need to make certain that money used for student-athletes with disabilities is in addition to what we have right now for other sports — not taking away money or resources.”
At the moment, however, the biggest challenge for both ECAC leaders and adaptive sports advocates isn’t financial. It’s finding athletes. Most adaptive sports don’t have systems in place for identifying athletes, making it difficult for schools to determine whether they have potential varsity candidates already on campus. Additionally, schools need to figure out the best ways to recruit potential adaptive athletes locally, nationally, and internationally.
Gary Caldwell, director of rowing for Tufts and commissioner of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association, believes a partnership with Brighton-based Community Rowing could help identify local talent in his sport. (Community Rowing is known for its well-established Para Rowing program.) And Caldwell is considering other ways of finding athletes such as talking with makers of prostheses.
Still, it will take years to establish NCAA-sanctioned adaptive sports and the pipelines of talent to feed them.
“In our little corner of the college world, in rowing, we’re willing to throw stuff up on the wall and see what sticks,” said Caldwell.
“I don’t think any of us knows yet how any of this can grow. To a certain extent, it’s like the Field of Dreams. If you build it, if you start it, they will come.”