Chapel Hill: Opinion

Put them in, coach: A plea for special-needs student-athletes

Mary Carey
Mary Carey

I heard a gentleman on the radio say, “All unsolicited advice is self-serving.”


When I do it, I think of it as being helpful. Anne Lamott, one of my favorite authors, said, “Help is the sunny side of controlling.”

So why does something so pleasurable have to be so bad?

I’ve cut back on giving unsolicited advice, but please forgive me the joy I will experience in sharing with you this important message about the correct way to talk about people. It may be different from what you were taught as a child. Sometimes, even media outlets don’t describe people correctly.

The rule is, “people first.” You say a person with diabetes, not a diabetic. A person with autism, not an autistic person.

When you think about it, who would want to be defined by a limitation or challenge?

I might be called slow-running Mary. Over there is moody Joe and can’t-dance-to-save-her-life Jane.

It’s easy to see how this constant reminder of your own personal challenge would become tiresome.

Two students at Carrboro High might describe themselves as a cheerleader and as a basketball player and runner.

Lucia Romano has been a cheerleader for Carrboro High, and Max Van Name has been a runner for both cross country and track, as well as a basketball player for Carrboro.

Of course, like the rest of us, they are other things too. Lucia was born with Down syndrome, and Max has developmental disabilities.

This capacity to be a person who cheers on the sidelines or the shooting guard on the basketball team have been very important to Lucia and Max. It has also been important to their teammates, fellow students, fans and anyone else who might be touched and inspired by these high school athletes.

Even though their diagnoses allow them to stay in high school through their 21st years, the N.C. High School Athletic Association treats them the same as any other high school student. They get eight consecutive semesters to participate in athletics, and now, their eligibility is up.

Melissa Barry, who teaches the full-time exceptional students at Carrboro High, knew how much sports meant to Lucia and Max. She and April Ross, the athletic director, developed and submitted a proposal to the NCHSAA to adopt a rule similar to those that other states have created to treat this population of students differently.

This rule change would allow students who are in the full-time exceptional children’s program AND who qualify to participate in Special Olympics to compete until the end of their high school careers.

The NCHSAA rejected their proposal.

Que Tucker, the executive director of the association, explained: “It’s about fair play. We treat everyone the same. We want them (Lucia and Max) to be treated fairly, and they have had their eight semesters of opportunity to play.”

Barry and Ross now plan to submit their proposal to the N.C. Department of Instruction, which oversees the NCHSAA. Bill Cobey, the chair of the State Board of Education, when asked about the proposal, said: “(The) NCHSAA has had the final say on almost everything pertaining to high school athletics. At times in the past the General Assembly or the State Board of Education has gotten involved, particularly in the areas of health and safety, such as monitoring concussions.”

Max’s and Lucia’s moms saw sports as an opportunity for their children to pursue a life outside their self-contained classroom. “Lucia, and students like her, should be given every opportunity to live a typical student’s life because ‘life’ would not be in a separate setting,” said Maria Romano, Lucia’s mother.

Adela Van Name, Max’s mother, said “Sports is an avenue that allowed Max and his teammates to struggle together and hone their skills for the team outcome. … Why does it have to stop now after we are just reaping some of the benefits of a tremendous amount of struggle?”

Max said his teammates became his friends and shared this concern “I hope I can still be friends with them – I don’t see them in classes, so I am worried. I will miss them,” he said.

“Cheerleading is a great sport,” Lucia said. “I can meet new friends on the team. In cheerleading we practice every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays in the afternoon. I am busy. I love meeting new friends, and I love wearing the school uniform.”

If the State Board of Education doesn’t allow this rule change in the fall, Max’s and Lucia’s days in Carrboro team uniforms are already behind them.

Mary Carey lives in Chapel Hill with her husband, two sons and two dogs. She can be reached at or @maryhelenecarey on Twitter.