That’s Special: Disabilities, Athletics and the Case of Brett Bowden

Brett Bowden was a football player for Hobbton High School in Newton Grove, North Carolina.  And he has Down Syndrome.

The “was” and “has” is very important as Bowden is still alive and attends the school; he did not commit suicide like Brad Evans.  However, he is no longer part of the football team.

Here is the background to this story.  Bowden became a member of the Wildcats’ football team a couple of years ago despite his “disability.”  The team allowed Bowden to participate in all activities, suit up, lead the team on the field, and, according to Yahoo! Sports, score touchdowns after the game.  Allegedly, according to WWAY, he even scored in a football game (I cannot confirm that).  Great story; awesome times!

Bowden is entering his junior year at Hobbton High.  He is also 19 years of age.  While there is a variance from state to state about the age at which students are no longer allowed to attend high school, students with disabilities are allowed to attend until the age of 21 (per the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).  So, no problem for Bowden there.

The issue that came about was related to athletics.  According to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA),

No student may be approved for any athletic contest if his or her 19th birthday comes on or before August 31, 2011; i.e., the date of birth was on or before August 31, 1992 (pg. 120).

So, the kid is too old.

Now…why is this an issue?  Why is everyone so up-in-arms about Bowden not being allowed to play?

The issue of course is that it is being painted as though the NCHSAA is not allowing Bowden to participate because he has a disability.  Even the hook used to get you to read the article on Yahoo! Sports is somewhat misleading:

Of course, once you click on the story the title of the article is “Player with Down Syndrome kicked off team by rigid age limit.”  But even that is misleading.

Now, I could be a dick and simply say fuck this “kid,” as was done elsewhere.  But allow me to be more logical about it.

First off, he was not “kicked off” of the team; his eligibility expired.  This expiration happens all of the time!  Football players run out of eligibility all of the time.  I don’t see Brett Favre deciding to return to play football at Southern Miss.  I doubt that Trent Richardson is debating whether or not he wants to return to Escambia High School.  You know why?  Well, not just because of the money they are making (um………), but because they could not do it even if they wanted to do it!!!  They are no longer eligible!

Meet Jerry Joseph.  He was a 16-year old basketball player for Permian High School in Odessa, Texas.  The six-foot five player helped lead the football-driven school to the state playoffs.  The guy was good; he displayed sharp skills that helped him push his way into the starting spot and even started garnering offers from universities such as Texas Tech.

Now, meet Guerdwich Montimere.  Actually, you already have.  Montimere is Jerry Joseph…and he is actually 22!!!  Montimere was spotted at an AAU tournament in Florida by opposing coaches who recognized him.  Seems he had previously played at a high school in Pensacola, Florida.  Out of eligibility, it seems he falsified his identification and re-entered high school, play a little bit more ball, and apparently bed some teenagers.  He is in prison now.

Eligibility runs out; you cannot go back.  Why should it be different for Bowden?  The eligibility rule is there for a reason.  Circumventing it now for this “one special occasion” is undermining the rule itself.  It will lead to other students questioning why they cannot play while Bowden was allow to do so.

Again, this is not a case of the NCHSAA kicking Bowden off of the team; his eligibility ran out!  And where are the school officials or the coaches in this mess?  Are they now suddenly being made aware of this rule, a rule that has been on the books since 1974?  Did they not inform Bowden and his family of the potential of his eligibility expiring?  So, why is this a surprise now?

And, he is not being ruled ineligible because of his disability!  Christ, if anything, his “disability” has afforded him many opportunities that are lacking for others.  No one gave me an opportunity to play basketball in high school.  Why?  Because I was white…well, more because I was comparatively short and my offensive game sucks!  But, I was not given a bench spot and the opportunity to come into a game and playjust because of my whiteness…ERRRR, shortness.

Bowden was a member of the team for two years!  He was allegedly allowed to score a touchdown in a game!  How many kids in high school dream of that?  And yet, Bowden was gifted the touchdown!  Granted, nice story, even if it has been done before.  But, this would not be done for other high school students.  I know several people who were on the high school football team that never saw the light of day on the football field.  Yet, Brett Bowden, because of his disability was able to not only get onto the field but even scored a TD!!!

AND, the NCHSAA is even willing to allow Bowden to wear the uniform and be on the sidelines.  I do not know if there is precedence for this — certainly ineligible players can still be on the sideline — but he is still “part of the team.”  Why can this not be acceptable?  Why is it that a kid that does not even get on the field under NORMAL circumstances get a special privilege over others?

To me, this is an issue where too many heart-strings are being pulled.  It is easy to get caught up in the sentimental story of the kid with a disability getting a chance to be just “one of the guys.”  Problem is that he has been “part of the guys” for two years and, as a friend noted to me, there comes a point where one has to say it is “time” to move on.  Now is that time.

Yeah, I know.  I am a dick; I am an asshole.  I am heartless.  I am sure that you pray that I have a kid with Down Syndrome so that I “know what it is like.”  Go ahead and flood the comment section and E-mail with your hatred.  But, this is not about Bowden’s disability.  It is about that he had his moment and, at some point, he will need to move on.  Remember, he is a 19-year old junior.  If it is allowed this season, what about when he is a 20-year old senior???

If Bowden had just now — as a 19-year old — attempted to join the football team and the NCHSAA said no, I’d ask why not?  I’d see the logic for allowing him to play.  But the fact remains that he has been part of the team for two years.  He is still being allowed to be on the sidelines.  Is this not enough?  Hell, I’d even say let him wear pads on the sidelines so long as he does not enter the game [NCHSAA rules state that ineligible players cannot be suited up lest they forfeit the game; I’d be willing to allow for that in this case so long as he could not enter the field].  But, if you are going to make the argument that he is not going onto the field anyway, then it should not matter whether or not he wears pads on the sidelines.

Allowing the emotion of this situation to dictate what should happen is erroneous.  But this is honestly devolving into a situation where too much is trying to be done for someone who, quite honestly, has already been given a lot due to his disability.  I mean, what is next — make Brett Bowden be the next “Mr. Football” in North Carolina!?

No one is saying that he cannot be “one of the guys”; he can still do the same things he was doing before.  Again, it is not like he will be missed on the field anyway!

Let Brett Bowden Play“?  He already played!  At some point, he needs to move on.

You should, too!

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