The other day, I watched a video of Ike, the high school football team member whose comrades let him score a touchdown near the end of a would-be shut out where it wouldn’t really matter giving up a point. The players from both teams faked the play because Ike, with his short, uncoordinated legs and slow, little body, probably wouldn’t be able to score any other way. They did it because they were being good sports and showing some heart for a kid who has Down syndrome.
I watched the video yesterday because my sister had enthusiastically sent a link to it to me and my other siblings. I appreciate her zest and am happy it touched her heart and made her smile. It should. The video shows the opposition faking dives, the defensive line clearing the way for the 51-yard goal, and cheering fans in the stands excited out of their minds. It shows a boy running and dodging with all his guts, receiving honest atta-boys from fellow players, and doing an awkwardly sweet victory dance at the end. The boy’s mom was happy that others cared about her son’s happiness. The moment captured a sentiment that too rarely shows up in high school, or perhaps any, sports.
My sister’s e-mail wasn’t the first time I had heard about Ike’s newsworthy score. It had gone around the Internet about a year ago and even my technologically out-of-touch mother-in-law who relished in the feel-good story had recommended we search for the news article about this kid.
But reading about and watching Ike didn’t really make me feel entirely good. It actually made me a bit sad. And… well, it’s complicated.
Having a child who happens to have Down syndrome – which by the way is a preferred way to describe such a person – is emotionally complicated.
It wasn’t long after we were released from the NICU with Raphael when we first heard about Ike’s play. I wasn’t particularly eager to go online to check it out because, aside from being exceptionally preoccupied, I had a hunch it would sort of upset me that some teen scoring a goal should make headlines because he happened to have a disability. I had already experienced a lot of good-intentioned words related to my son’s diagnosis – even from people who are the closest to me – abrade me, and I didn’t want to read what even well-intentioned people who don’t have a child like my son had to say.
Even the headline – Down Syndrome Player Scores Touchdown – bugs me. It might as well say Frog Scores Touchdown as if it’s so remarkable that a person with an extra chromosome could do something so miraculous. A person with Down syndrome is a person first, just like every one else, not some pity case.
Reading the comments people post below online stories like Ike’s is a lesson in toughness. It tests my ability to withhold judgment (which is precisely what I wish others would do for my child and all differently abled people).
There’s always an assortment of gee-whiz-that’s-great remarks from the subtle to the extreme, as in “I’m bawling my eyes out because of what those boys did for that disabled kid” or “that must have been the best moment of his life!” (Really? I hope not.)
There are the cynics who cry foul, as in “The child isn’t stupid. He’s going to feel so bad when he realizes his teammates gave him the play.” (Or, just maybe, he’ll feel like they cared about him.)
And then, as per usual on the Internet, the commentary goes vitriolic.
Some standout commenters bemoan why people with special needs get special treatment or attention and presume some sort of quid pro quo takes place that results in their precious children thereby missing out on some entitlement. Some writers attack anyone with any measure of ambivalence about the situation as heartless evildoers. Occasionally a quiet voice will effectively describe the nuances within an article, but usually people who post their thoughts do so hastily and leave a wake of rancor and sound bites that miss the point.
I reviewed a few articles about Ike’s TD, and truly, I dig that kid and am glad for that nice moment in that town that night. But many comments about the article were hard on my heart to read. At the same time, I’m compulsively driven to read them to learn what people think and say about people with Down syndrome and about what happens involving people with Down syndrome. Perhaps it’s because I have a personal mission to create social change regarding people with disabilities, and I need to know what there is to combat.
But I sometimes fear that the complicated emotions and aspects involved in equalizing the treatment of a group of people may be too much to surmount. If a simple news piece about good sportsmanship and openness to differences can descend so quickly into mean spirited name calling and shallow mindedness, I wonder how I am to help level the playing field.