Wheelchair athlete loses bid

Judge rules McFadden can't score points for Atholton track and field

May 15, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

In what he described as a close call, a federal judge has rejected a Howard County teenager's effort to force state officials to allow wheelchair athletes to win points in upcoming track and field championships.

U.S. District Court Judge Andre M. Davis agreed that Atholton junior Tatyana McFadden is experiencing irreparable harm because as a wheelchair competitor, she races in individual events but cannot score for her team.

But the judge ultimately ruled against her request for an injunction against the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, saying her situation was akin to that of other athletes - like divers and pole vaulters - who have competed in the past but not scored when the number of competitors in their individual events remained too low.

"The question is whether the constraints on McFadden's ability to earn points for her team differ in any material, legally cognizable ways from the constraints on the opportunity of similarly situated students," Davis wrote in a decision dated Saturday. "The court is constrained to answer that question `no.'"

In the 18-page decision, Davis praised McFadden's diligence, determination, hard work and advocacy, calling them "noble and inspiring."

But in the end, keeping McFadden from being eligible to win points did not amount to discrimination as defined under federal disability law, the judge ruled.

McFadden, who was born with spina bifida, sued the state in March, asking a federal judge for an immediate order to force the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association to allow her to score points for her team at either this week's regional or next week's state track and field meet. McFadden was expected to compete at 200 and 400 meters.

Yesterday, she expressed frustration with the ruling, saying she was unsure whether she would compete this year as a less-than-full teammate.

"On the other hand, I think I also gained a lot. I'm going to be able to run with everyone," McFadden said. "I want to go and show them that I'm still here ... but then it's really disappointing that I'm not going to win points. We'll have to see."

McFadden's mother, Deborah, said she was heartened that in the course of the lawsuit, state officials pledged to find a way to award points to disabled competitors in future state tournaments.

McFadden did not compete in the Howard County championships last week, her mother said, because she attended the invitational Visa Paralympic World Cup in England, where she earned two gold medals.

Despite skipping the county events, she remains eligible for the regional and state tournaments.

Since beginning her legal battle, McFadden has already persuaded Howard County officials to award wheelchair athletes points during their track and field events. At a court hearing last week, her attorney, Lauren Young, a Maryland Disability Law Center attorney, argued that some nominal points earned by McFadden would enable her to participate fully in the events as a member of her team.

Those single points rarely made a difference in the eventual winner of a particular state tournament, she said.

But Deputy Counsel Elliott L. Schoen of the Maryland attorney general's office disagreed, saying there were tournaments where a point or two made all the difference in the outcome.

The state needed more time, he had argued, to fashion an appropriate way of crediting the participation of differently abled athletes in state competitions.

"It was a close call, but I think the judge understood the issues that the state rules didn't apply to her any differently than it applies to other athletes," Schoen said yesterday.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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