Error disqualifies Issaquah Special Olympics team from state competition
March 1, 2011
By Laura Geggel
The Issaquah Lions, a youth Special Olympics basketball team, played their hearts out on the court Feb. 13, beating both Tahoma and Enumclaw — wins that secured the Lions a place at the state championships in Wenatchee.
“The kids were so thrilled, some of them cried with tears of joy at their accomplishment,” coach Jeff Powers said.
One player, a 3-foot tall boy with Down syndrome, spent most of the game running up and down the court. During one game, “he threw up a shot and this was the thrill of his life,” Powers said.
The next day, the coaches received a message from the Special Olympics Washington office: Basketball teams can have up to 10 players on a team, and the Lions had played with 11 athletes, disqualifying them from the state competition.
Tahoma, the runner-up team that had placed second at the regional games, would be going in its place.
The Lions’ players were confused and disappointed when they learned they would not be able to play at state, and some children offered to sit on the bench so the rest of their teammates could play.
“He was so sweet. He thought of it all by himself,” Lee Anna Hayes said of her son J.P Hayes.
The seventh-grader at Issaquah Middle School offered to cheer and coach his team from the sidelines.
Special Olympics games are usually filled with enthusiastic athletes and family who cheer when either team scores a point, Lee Anna Hayes said.
The disqualification “was just a bummer,” she said, but “I do understand a rule is a rule.”
Many of the athletes did not understand the disqualification, and “that’s the thing that has me most upset,” coach Marc Levy said.
“To us… it’s not about the politics, it’s not about what I think or what Jeff (Powers) thinks or a gentlemen from Special Olympics thinks,” he said. “It’s about the kids having fun.”
Two of the seven Issaquah teams are going to state, and some of the Lions might go with their parents to cheer them on in Wenatchee on March 5-6, “but I don’t think I can take my daughter, because she just won’t understand why she can’t play,” Powers said.
So many athletes, not enough space
Basketball is the most popular Special Olympics team sport in Washington, with 3,000 athletes playing every season, from December to March.
Athletes are divided into three age groups, with juniors for 8- to 15-year-olds, seniors 16 to 21 and masters 22 or older. Each team is allowed to have 10 players, with five athletes on the court at any one time.
When 13 players registered for the Lions, the state office for the Special Olympics gave them a call.
Issaquah Special Olympics coach and area coordinator Leo Finnegan spoke with Special Olympics Vice President for Sports and Programs John Borgognoni. The team was too big, Borgognoni said, and he asked that the coaches solve the matter.
“We have to be consistent for all teams and all athletes that participate in our program,” Borgognoni said.
He gave the Issaquah team two options. Instead of playing during the game, athletes could participate in individual skills — an opportunity in which players train one-on-one with a certified coach. During competitions, athletes can display their dribbling, passing and shooting skills, earning medals for their work.
Athletes can also participate in team skills, an activity when five athletes pass the ball to one another and shoot the ball at the basket. Players who participate in team skills usually have physical disabilities that make it difficult for them to run across the court.
Both of these activities require a certified coach. One parent offered to volunteer, but found she did not have time for the two-hour weekly practices. The coaches did not want to cut any children, and they didn’t have enough coaches to register any athletes for individual skills or team skills.
Still, Borgognoni said the Issaquah team had options. Though individual skills and team skills usually have a separate coach, the Lions could have used a coach for both the team practices and the skills practices. He also suggested that the coaches share their predicament with the parents when they were working out their solution, but that conversation did not happen. The Issaquah Lions coaches thought they would get a waiver from the state office, allowing them more players on the court, Powers said.
If the athletes were not interested in individual skills and wanted to play on a team, they would have had to join another junior-level Special Olympics basketball team, the closest locations being in Auburn, Enumclaw or Tahoma.
“I said, ‘We are not going to tell any athletes they are not going to play on a team,’” Finnegan said. “The kids have already had too many implicit and explicit comments that they don’t belong.”
The coaches considered breaking the team of 13 into two groups of six and seven, but Finnegan said the plan wasn’t ideal. Athletes frequently miss practices and games depending on their conditions and schedules. If two players on the six-person team missed the regional competition, the team would have to forfeit.
Even playing with only five players is unsafe, because then the children have to play both games with no substitutes, Finnegan said.
He suggested Special Olympics raise the cap from 10 to 13, so that if a team of 14 registered, coaches could break it into teams of seven.
The Special Olympics Sports Committee is examining the size — in 2010 and 2011, it allowed certain masters teams to play with a roaster of up to 12 athletes. If the committee feels the roaster increase is warranted at the masters’ level, then it will examine the possibility of expanding it in other divisions, Borgognoni said.
On the day of regional competition, 11 Issaquah Lions came to play.
Even though they registered 11 players, nobody at the tournament told them they could not play with 11 athletes, but it is difficult for staff to check on every game because there are so many happening at the same time, Borgognoni said.
Sometimes, Special Olympics allows teams to practice with more than 10 players, especially if the team is from a rural area, such as Moses Lake, “with the knowledge that when they get to the event, it’s got to be 10,” players, he said.
“Special Olympics is a sports organization, and just like any sports organization there are rules and regulations,” he continued. “On occasion, we’ve had teams that had too many on the roaster that we’ve had to disqualify.”
After the Lions’ disqualification, Borgognoni spoke with several of the team members’ parents. They were disappointed, but now they have a better understanding of the rules and regulations, he said.
Finnegan said the rules were unfair and that they should be changed.
“In my opinion, Special Olympics has lost sight of what their mission is, and that is to provide an opportunity for people with developmental disabilities to be able to participate in sports on equal footing,” he said. “When you limit the number of students on a team and you have to tell three of them or any of them they can’t play, it’s just unconscionable.”
Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.