Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Friday, February 16, 2007

Sports, Prejudice, and Journalism

There's a post on Autism Vox about a television interview in which Jason McElwain, the autistic kid who got some undeserved fame last year for shooting a few baskets in a high school game, described himself as a hero. (NBC, natch. Hurry up and clean out your desk, Bob.)

At the end of the post, Kristina had this to say:

"Autistic Boy Drops 20 Points" the headlines read a year ago about J-Mac.

Have you heard any headlines saying "Mentally Retarded Student Drops 20 Points" or even "Schizophrenic Athlete Drops 20 Points"?

I hope we hear all of those, someday.

I'm sure I can't be the only one who winced upon reading that (and the original news coverage). Here's what it reminds me of: Old newspaper stories from about 50 years ago, when professional sports in the United States were starting to become racially integrated, with headlines like "Negro Hits Home Run."

Nowadays, under modern journalistic codes of ethics, news stories typically do not mention a person's race unless it is relevant to the story. Publishers understand that gratuitous discussion of race, national origin, and other divisive social categories is best avoided because it highlights differences and therefore tends to perpetuate prejudice. It's about time for the media to start showing the same respect toward neurological minority groups.

As for Jason McElwain and his misguided belief that he is a hero for raising awareness of "the disease" of autism—well, he's a clueless kid, and I'm sure he was only repeating what he was told by manipulative curebies who want to use him to further their agenda. Because he clearly doesn't know any better, I won't bash him. I do, however, have a bit of advice for him:

You think you're a hero, Jason? It might be a good idea to do some reading about Jackie Robinson and all that he endured—with great dignity—in integrating major league baseball. Dude, you're no Jackie Robinson.



  • By Blogger ballastexistenz, at 9:19 AM  

  • Thanks and points more than well taken----I was trying to address the negative associations of those labels but I don't think I did it quite right. On the other hand, a lot of the curebies have been very anti-Jason McElwain. It's the rhetoric of heroism and disability that is problematic here, to me at least.

    Thanks again----

    By Blogger kristina, at 9:58 AM  

  • Thanks for the link Amanda -- very apropos.

    Kristina, there's a high school I know of that has a wrestler with muscular dystrophy, in the 103-pound weight class. He enters the gym in a wheelchair and crawls to the center of the mat when he has a match. He is very weak and gets pinned within a few seconds. However, the coach didn't put him on the team out of pity or altruism, but because he is valuable to the team. Many teams do not have a wrestler in the 103 class because it's so hard to find teenage boys who weigh less than 103 pounds. So whenever the opposing team does not have a wrestler in that class, he wins points for his team by forfeit. Because a forfeit scores the maximum points for the match, he often ends up being one of the most valuable athletes on the team, in terms of points.

    Sometimes people call him a hero, but he's just a kid who wants to participate in sports and contribute to the team.

    By Blogger abfh, at 11:20 AM  

  • I have been feeling uneasy about using the word "hero" in regard to my own son. I really appreciate learning about the athlete that you mentioned......I realize that I meant to write, not that we hear more labels placed upon students, but that we just hear about them as the athletes that they are. (I deleted the "I hope we hear" line from my own post and am myself wincing at it.)

    By Blogger kristina, at 12:41 PM  

  • This isn't related to this particular post, but rather to the fact that I don't have your email address and that I'm trying to empty my reading queue before I shut down.

    A friend of mine found this and we thought it seemed like autism without the medicalisation. I'd love to blog about that but have no spare neurons at the moment. It seemed like it would appeal to a certain abfh, though :)

    By Blogger elmindreda, at 2:32 PM  

  • elmindreda: Thanks for the link. I do indeed find it encouraging to see parent books and articles that describe autistic traits in positive terms and without medicalization. Let's hope it's a trend.

    Also, thanks for letting me know that you couldn't find my e-mail address! I had it in my Blogger profile, but the switch to New Blogger made it disappear, and I didn't notice at the time. I've put it back in my profile now.

    By Blogger abfh, at 2:47 PM  

  • The finer points of both sports are pretty much lost on me I'm afraid, but I think I'd have to admit to falling into the 'horray' category coupled with the queasy feeling that I'd missed something important.
    Thanks for pointing out [again - for some of us are slow learners] that vital element.

    By Blogger mcewen, at 3:49 PM  

  • Well Kristina with your penchant for Greek there was Alexander the Hero, and Hero of Alexandria.

    And where in the meanwhile was Leander :)

    By Blogger laurentius rex, at 4:19 PM  

  • I feel kind of bad for Jason, in that he's being told he's a hero, but then all these curebies are bashing him and saying "well he's not like OUR kids" when...well...yeah he is. And he got a whole lot of attention and probably wasn't expecting it & doesn't know how to deal with it. Someone probably called him a hero and it 'stuck', if that makes sense.

    Personally I can't wait for the day when an athlete or whatever with whatever condition isn't newsworthy and the mention of it gets a "so what?" response, because it's so common. But that's just me...

    By Blogger Kassiane, at 4:20 PM  

  • Kassiane -- it's not just you. I'd guess a lot of people feel the same way but haven't dared to say it.

    I feel kind of bad for Jason, too, because he's so innocent and easily manipulated, but unfortunately he is doing our cause a lot of harm when he repeats curebie propaganda, and he really needs to wise up.

    By Blogger abfh, at 4:43 PM  

  • Just a quick example re: my daughter (the Bear). I've seen her attempt something difficult for her 'in public' and fail. The first time I noticed it was at my outlaw's house. They have a sunken living room (one step). She was crawling at the time (she had/has hypotonia and didn't walk until after her second birthday), and tumbled down the step. She quickly righted herself and acted like it had never happened.

    The real story is what happened afterwards. When she thought no one was looking, she went back to the step and quietly practiced over and over again until she had clearly mastered it, all by herself. Not as a perseveration, but with quiet determination and perseverance to do what it took to learn the step. Once she had confidently mastered it, then she let out a noise to draw our attention, and a beaming little girl successfully navigated the step for us, clearly proud of her achievement.

    I’ve seen her do this often enough (and her school has seen it too) that I know it was no fluke. When she doesn’t succeed at something she will pretend that it didn’t happen, and then later go off by herself to attempt it over and over again until she masters it. I thought of this when reading ‘We can be heroes… just having a beer’. Her efforts may not be ‘heroic’, but it does sometimes take effort, determination, and perseverance to do what she thinks 'needs to be done'.

    By Blogger Ian Parker, at 5:49 PM  

  • "As for Jason McElwain and his misguided belief that he is a hero for raising awareness of "the disease" of autism—well, he's a clueless kid, and I'm sure he was only repeating what he was told by manipulative curebies who want to use him to further their agenda. Because he clearly doesn't know any better, I won't bash him."

    Our local paper this week celebrated the anniversary of Jason's feat. It was mentioned that he works at a Wegman's supermarket in a nearby town.

    What would you tell Jason if you could? I could print it up and hand it to him.

    By Blogger Clay, at 7:25 PM  

  • This is going to sound really mean, but...I run a circle of hell, as the Rettdevil, so I don't meet many nice people...

    Honestly, I think Jason needs to have it brought to his attention that he isn't the only autistic athlete. Not only is he not the only autistic athlete, but a whole lot of us do sports the "real" way...with defense, or with judges who are taking just as many points off our scores as they would if we were NT, or whatever. 20 points sounds impressive until you watch the footage and see there was NO DEFENSE. Then it's like, oh.

    Second, he needs to know that being 2 things at once-autistic and a basketball player, nearsighted and on track, Deaf and a gymnast (there's a Deaf girl on the Brigham Young University team), whatever, doesn't make you a hero. It doesn't even mean you deserve a lot of attention for it. All it means is you have 2 traits that may surprise people at first. If you DO get attention for it, you have the responsibility to take care what you do with it.

    Part of that responsibility is to not speak in a manner that suggests that people like you are diseased or broken. Repeating what OTHER people say isn't responsible, especially not as a senior in high school. It's time to think real long and hard about what YOU think about you by the time you reach that age, not just be a parrot or a puppet...and last year the people who want to wipe all of us off the earth had an autistic puppet.

    That's what I'd say. But bear in mind I'm seriously snarky....and I do/did sports. My coaches all have the attitude of *blink* "and?" and that's kind of how I feel about autism in sports...it's only a big deal if you make it one, and it's NOT inspirational, it just IS.

    By Blogger Kassiane, at 1:02 AM  

  • Clay, I'd advise against getting in his face with a pro-neurodiversity leaflet. Most people just throw leaflets away, and because Jason is semi-famous, he probably gets a lot of unsolicited stuff that he dumps directly in the trash. I don't think that would have much chance of getting through to him.

    Instead, you might want to try inviting him to a discussion group for autistic adults (i.e. you and a few friends, if you have enough friends in the area so that it would be doable). Print a nice friendly meeting announcement that you can give to him, with an innocuous header like "Autistic Adults Discussion Group."

    If he's interested and decides to come to the meeting, that will give you an opportunity to talk about his interests and concerns, gain his confidence, determine how you can most effectively get through to him, and do a gentle consciousness-raising intervention.

    I agree with Kassiane that he needs to learn that there are many other autistic athletes. If you could arrange to have more than one at the meeting, that would be ideal.

    By Blogger abfh, at 8:15 AM  

  • "Clay, I'd advise against getting in his face with a pro-neurodiversity leaflet."

    I didn't have in mind a "leaflet", but a letter addressed to him, "Dear Jason". Something to wise him up about being used by CAN and
    Autism Speaks, and would direct him to the most eye-opening essays written by some of us who are already "wised up". (Though I don't even know if he has a computer.)

    "Instead, you might want to try inviting him to a discussion group for autistic adults (i.e. you and a few friends, if you have enough friends in the area so that it would be doable)."

    It isn't doable, there are no discussion groups here, and I have no autistic acquaintances in the area.

    By Blogger Clay, at 11:19 AM  

  • I think this kid was well and truly fucked over by the curebie lot, who should actually know better than to do that.

    They've set him up for disillusionment from here-on in.

    The stupid sods.

    By Blogger David N. Andrews MEd (Distinction), at 4:59 PM  

  • Actually this is not a unique situation to autism once again but a familiar one within the wider world of disability.

    It is part of the whole media image of disability as either the bitter warped cripple or the heroic Douglas Bader type.

    The local papers are full of local disabled heroes, not infrequently sporting heroes or those who raise funds for there particular condition.

    Funny enough in my estimation the average disabled person on the upper deck of the Clapham Omnibus (now there is a contradiction for you couched in tradition idiom)

    Well the people I used to meet on the street got fed up with those heroes, who were only fit for the sort of heart warming stories that have ever been popular with journalists.

    I do not suppose it is not very nice to be such a person when they meet there workaday peers because they are universally disliked.

    I'd rather be a legend than a hero anyday.

    Well the Stranglers had a song about, whatever happened to the heroes

    By Blogger laurentius rex, at 9:49 PM  

  • Clay, no worries, I didn't mean to put you on the spot. Sorry about that.

    I just think Jason needs an old-fashioned personal intervention, like when the feminists in the 1960s invited their happy housewife neighbors over for coffee and consciousness-raising.

    If there's anyone else reading this post who lives in the Rochester NY area and wants to try talking some sense into Jason, send me an e-mail (the address is now back in my Blogger profile thanks to elmindreda), and maybe we can get enough people together to do something.

    And Larry, yes, I'm sure you're quite right that people with all sorts of disabilities are totally fed up with these media-contrived phony heroes.

    By Blogger abfh, at 10:57 PM  

  • I suspect that J-Mac already has a clue, but it's buried in his subconscious and he can't really access it to think about it.

    When "the game" was over, his teammates hoisted him on their shoulders. Hero adulation, hoorays all around. When CAN heard about it, they lost no time in reaching out to him, to hoist him on THEIR shoulders, saying, "Isn't it wonderful this boy accomplished so much, in spite of *suffering* with autism! He's been on a speaking tour with that crowd, and I'm sure he's had the opportunity to see the agenda behind what they SAY. Yet, it's difficult to disagree with people who are ostensibly "paying homage" to you. He's a young, naive aspie, and I don't doubt he could figure it out for himself eventually, I just wish we could save him some time.

    By Blogger Clay, at 5:17 PM  

  • I'm not sure how I feel about an "intervention." If someone were to do that to me, pretending to invite me to a "discussion group," and trying to gain my confidence, all the while having an agenda, I would feel manipulated and pretty angry. I would wonder why they couldn't be straightforward with me from the start.

    The real issue is that a high school student with autism knows nothing about neurodiversity issues. And it's not just Jason's high profile that makes him a target for Curebie propaganda. I attend an autism support group, and I see this all the time among the younger set. They use medicalized terms, and lament their sorry state of affairs.

    How can we reach the younger autistics?

    By Blogger Chasmatazz, at 7:35 PM  

  • I just read another story like that on the front page of my local newspaper today.

    A high school senior with Down Syndrome, who had been the "team manager" for the past four years, was allowed to play in a basketball varsity game and scored one basket. There was the obligatory sappy quote from the coach, who said that the boy had "touched our hearts in a special way."

    And his mother said "that 50 seconds of fame will last a lifetime."

    Ick. Just ick.

    My Aspie son isn't much good at basketball, football, or anything that involves a ball, but I would never let anyone treat him like a poor pitiful team pet who ought to be grateful for the chance to carry the other kids' towels. He runs cross country and wrestles, and he's on varsity in both of those sports.

    Just what is going on in the minds of parents who think it's not only acceptable, but wonderful and inspirational, for their kid to be so thoroughly excluded from his peer group that he only gets to participate for 50 seconds in a lifetime?

    By Anonymous Bonnie Ventura, at 10:39 PM  

  • If you read this post over at my Autism Hub blog, you'll read about a guy with CP who is on his high school cross-country team. He runs races all the time, he is encouraged across the board, and his one goal is to beat his best time. His teammates - and members of the other team - come back and help him finish because he often falls while on the course. (They don't help him run, they help him stand up again when he falls over.) He found a sport he enjoyed, and the coach was willing to have him on the team, and there you go.

    I think half the problem with school sports is the competitiveness of them. You can only play on a team if you're good enough. Even teams that are "for fun" suffer from competitiveness, and I don't mean just from parents. I remember being yelled at during gym class because I was a poor athlete, even though it was supposed to be fun and we were supposed to be learning how to play the sport. (And my badminton racket always had a hole in it, just when the birdie was headed for me, I swear!)

    When I was in grade five, I was put on the spelling bee team for my school, and I even got to be on TV. (No, I don't have a copy of the episode.) I was slow on the buzzer, but I could spell really well, so I was a good person to have on the team because I could pick up if someone missed their word. I didn't get to do much spelling on the TV show, but I was a part of the team all the same.

    By Blogger Jannalou, at 1:24 AM  

  • Chasmatazz wrote:

    How can we reach the younger autistics?

    I've put that question on my list of topics for posts in the near future, Chasmatazz.

    By Blogger abfh, at 9:26 AM  

  • Bonnie Ventura wrote:

    "And his mother said "that 50 seconds of fame will last a lifetime."

    Ick. Just ick."

    I once had a client who had CP, a young black man whose limbs were withered and contracted. He was barely able to feed himself or brush his teeth.

    I noticed that he had a trophy on his bookshelf, looked at it, and saw it was from the Special Olympics. I asked him what sport he had competed in, but he didn't want to talk about it.

    I think he knew just how "empty" of meaning that trophy was. They give them to everyone, just for being there.

    By Blogger Clay, at 1:24 PM  

  • Heh. The trophies...I had a bunch from power tumbling, with "normal" tumblers. Once my stepmom tried to tell me that my biggish 1st place trophy didn't mean anything b/c I had a small group that day.

    "doesn't mean anything."
    "Ok. Let's see you put on a leotard and do what I do, and YOU can have the damn trophy."

    She never said anything about it again.

    That same meet one of my tumblers was mad because she thought she was overscored, and got 1st when she didn't think she deserved it (technicality that'd take paragraphs to explain). She threw HER trophy across the van...at 6 years old. If a kindergartener knew, I'm thinkin' that J-mac, and plenty of Special Olympians, and lots of other people know that they're being given something they haven't earned, regardless of the competitive grouping ('NT', NOT NT, Advanced Beginner Girls 6 and under...)

    By Blogger Kassiane, at 4:59 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home