Last night I opened up Facebook and started to read what was in my news feed. I got to a post about a young man that is on the same football team as my son. As I read through the post, which was written by his father and fairly specific, I was overwhelmed with emotions. As I finished reading I found myself crying, hurting and enraged about an experience the boy had just had. The boy’s name is David. David is a well-liked and well-rounded young man who has a great personality and knows his mind. He happens to be a 19-year old young man with Down syndrome.
(screenshot taken with permission of Dan, David’s father)
I have personally watched David play football week after week. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone on the field working harder to help the team win. He is dedicated and very competitive. He also participates in other sports including wrestling, basketball and swimming. He’s just as passionate about wrestling as he is about football, maybe even more so. One of his goals was to be a part of the high school wrestling team. Now a high school senior, David has been a member of the high school wrestling team for three years.
Happy 19th Birthday to this STANG! Enjoy your day David! ?? pic.twitter.com/SabLx5i3vg
— Memorial Wrestling (@BMHSwrestling) December 13, 2016
Two days ago David’s wrestling team, the Mustangs, was slated to compete against their cross-town rivals, the Dragons. Local press was to attend the match to get photos and video for a feel-good piece they were putting together about David and his wrestling coaches. The Mustangs arrived at the venue and just minutes before the meet started were informed “by the Brick Dragons that nobody on the Dragon team wanted to wrestle David.”
As I followed the discussion on Facebook, the general concensus was and still remains outrage, disappointment and a host of other negative feelings towards the Dragon team. I share this sentiment and I’ll tell you why.
(video used with permission of Dan, David’s father)
I admit, I do not know a ton about high school wrestling. I do know that David is an official member of the Mustangs wrestling team, with blessing of parents, doctors and all else entailed. I do know that David competes pretty regularly. He has wrestled all over New Jersey in high school competition and noone has ever refused to wrestle with him. Sometimes he wins (as shown in the video where he won his match against the Dragons last year). Sometimes he loses, as shown in the clip below. In each video I watched you could see his passion for the sport. David competes hard and looks for no special treatment. And to their credit, videos also showed opponents wrestling him fairly.
(video used with permission of Dan, David’s father)
Now last I checked, wrestling, like other high school sports teams, is overseen by adults. You know, those grown-up folks that we call coaches. I could be mistaken but I thought that wrestlers had to wrestle the athletes in their weight class. I really didn’t think there was a choice on if they wanted to wrestle another qualified wrestler. How would that work? Would students then be able to refuse to compete just because someone had red hair? I doubt it. Decline competition because the opponent had a different skin color? I don’t think so. That’s called discrimination. Well folks, the way I see it, that’s exactly what happened here on the Jersey shore the other night. In my opinion, David was the victim of prejudice and discrimination.
As with many conversations, both offline and on social media sites like Facebook, other voices have chimed in. At least one Dragons parent claims their kids weren’t given a choice. I have heard other claims that there were three wrestlers in David’s weight class, and that all three said they didn’t want to wrestle David. No matter which way you look at it, responsibility must be placed upon the Dragons coach. No self-respecting coach would allow players to discriminate against someone because they looked different. Again I remind you, David is on the Mustangs team, and should therefore be able to participate in competition as does any other Mustang. What should have been a friendly cross-town rivalry where young men have fun turned into heartbreak.
Every kid remembers playing ball (and other games) as a young child. We all remember the feeling of being picked or not picked. That’s because those games and competitions were not organized sports with rules. David had the right to participate in the meet. I cannot imagine how he must have felt to arrive looking forward to competition only to find that the other team didn’t want to wrestle with him. That is such poor sportsmanship on the part of the Dragons and it is unacceptable. I know what it’s like to be treated differently, because I was as a child and because my youngest has been as well, as he has Down syndrome. It is an awful feeling. And make no mistake. While people with Down syndrome may be different from “typical” people in some ways, they are the same in many ways including having the ability to feel emotional pain.
Leadership, acceptance and inclusion are things that are learned by listening and watching. What example did the Dragons coach set for his team by permitting his athletes to refuse to wrestle David? Or if you prefer the other version, what message did he send if the athletes weren’t asked and he refused? There is no version of this event that doesn’t land the blame squarely on the Dragons coaching staff.
The manner with which this was handled is very disappointing and hurtful for all involved. I hate to know that David is hurting. I hate that his parents have to watch him hurt. I hate that my son, who also has Down syndrome, lives in a community and could be treated this way. People with special needs have rights just like you and I. The Dragons need to take a good look at their leadership and consider the road that they are heading down as well as the lessons they are teaching our children and the examples they are setting. Discrimination and prejudice are not acceptable and something needs to be done.
The local press was present at the meet the other night. In an ideal world they would take the story that unfolded right before their eyes and run a human interest piece. Further, in an ideal world the Brick Board of Education would find a way to educate their coaching staff appropriately. Maybe the coach should spend some time with his cross-town opponents watching how inclusion works. Or, he could go one town over and watch Point Pleasant Boro Football, which is the finest example of inclusion I have seen.
In an ideal world this never would have happened.