Wheelchair ruling is needed, but from schools, not courts

ON HIGH SCHOOLS

May 18, 2007|By MILTON KENT

There's a chance the matter of how to include the scoring of disabled athletes in with those of able-bodied will be resolved in time for Tatyana McFadden to accumulate points in next year's state track meet.

There's probably a better chance that McFadden, a junior at Atholton, will graduate before the accomplishments of wheelchair athletes can be counted for points toward a state championship.

And while that's a shame for McFadden, the truth is that U.S. District Court Judge Andre M. Davis did the right thing in declining to force the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association to score her at this weekend's regionals or next week's championships.

Davis, in an opinion issued last week, ruled that while MPSSAA regulations regarding non-disabled and disabled athletes aren't necessarily fair, they aren't discriminatory.

Perhaps more importantly, Davis said education officials - not courts - should come up with an equitable formula for scoring, which is how it should be.

Let's not forget that it was Davis who opened a ridiculous can of worms 13 months ago by ordering Howard County officials to allow McFadden to participate alongside able-bodied runners in the streamlined racing wheelchair that she used to win medals in the Paralympics in Athens three years ago.

Howard educational officials, who had been negotiating with McFadden and her mother, Deborah, to reach a mutually satisfactory conclusion, found a compromise that not only let Tatyana participate in races with able-bodied runners, but also let her score one point for each race. The compromise, however, only applied to county meets.

We said then - and it's no less true now - that Davis made a serious mistake with last year's ruling, which failed to take into account the impracticality of mixing track performers who can run on two legs with those who can't without coming up with a system that is fair to all sides.

The logical consequence of Davis' ruling came at the state 2A championship meet last May, when coaches from Eastern Tech and Hereford appealed the win of Atholton's Alison Smith in the 1,600 meters.

McFadden, who was rolling ahead of Smith, was talking to her teammate and encouraging her. The rival schools protested, saying that McFadden was "pacing" Smith, giving her advice or information through a technical device, presumably her wheelchair.

A track jury upheld the appeal and Smith was disqualified, losing 10 points, which would have given Atholton a second straight team championship.

While reasonable people can argue about the appropriateness of using a remarkably literal application of a rule to punish McFadden, others might argue that state officials should have been given a chance to come up with something that is fair to everyone.

Perhaps Davis, who waited until last Saturday, one of the deadest days of the news cycle, to issue his ruling, recognized his mistake.

No one should argue that the disabled don't deserve a chance to participate in athletics, especially in those that are funded by tax dollars. Perhaps the larger issue is that the state has to double and redouble its efforts to identify handicapped athletes who can meet reasonable standards of competition and encourage them to participate so that all scores can be counted.

The challenge, however, is coming up with something that is fair to everyone. What happened to the Atholton team at the state meet last year is a horror story that can't be repeated, and current and former team members have privately, and on some level, understandably complained that the McFadden saga has intruded on their efforts to compete.

At any rate, Maryland officials should get in contact with their counterparts in other states where the disabled and able-bodied compete at track meets. That should happen soon enough for McFadden's senior year.

If it doesn't, McFadden certainly won't appreciate being unable to roll down the trail she has blazed, but hopefully, she'll have the satisfaction of watching others do so and have it count in years to come.

milton.kent@baltsun.com

For archived coverage and a photo gallery of Tatyana McFadden, go to baltimoresun.com/mcfadden.

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