The Hartford Courant Lori Riley column
Hartford Courant - 3/25/2018
March 25--Maddie Jones has played wheelchair basketball since she was in seventh grade. She had never thought about attending UConn but when she heard that the school might have a wheelchair basketball program in the works, she became interested.
Jones, who has cerebral palsy, is a senior at Harriton High School in Rosemont, Pa., where she is an honor roll student. She's interested in public policy and neuroscience and she knows that sounds odd but she's just not sure what she would like to study in college. Academics were important to her; she applied to Vassar, Case Western, Penn State, Pomona College and UConn.
"At UConn, I would get the rigorous academics I wanted and get a chance to be a student-athlete," Jones said. "That's why I applied to UConn, thinking if there was a team, being a student-athlete would be an option."
But on Feb. 23, UConn administrators decided not to initiate a wheelchair basketball program for 2018 which Ryan Martin, a former professional wheelchair basketball player from Simsbury who runs the Ryan Martin Foundation, has championed.
"When I heard it wasn't going to be there, I was really disappointed," Jones said. "It was kind of the thing that led me to apply to UConn."
The Ryan Martin Foundation's mission is to help people with disabilities become more independent through sports, particularly wheelchair basketball. Hundreds of kids go through the foundation's camps and junior programs at the Hospital of Special Care in New Britain and Madrid, Spain each summer
Last spring, Martin, who has served as a consultant for the NCAA for inclusive sports, approached UConn.
"President [Susan] Herbst was immediately intrigued and supportive when representatives of the group visited her office earlier this spring, and she asked UConn Athletics and UConn Recreation to help them get the idea going on campus," UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz wrote in an email last summer. "UConn has a lot of clubs and organizations that started with an interested, dedicated group of students and grew over time into very successful parts of the campus community. We'd love to see that happen with the wheelchair basketball initiative, too, and will be working with them to help them get practice space in Guyer Gym."
Last summer, Donna Korbel, UConn's director of the center for students with disabilities, said her staff had been working to identify students who would play.
"The timing is great," Korbel said last June. "I'm thrilled Ryan approached us to talk about this. There's been a lot of enthusiasm."
Martin ran a wheelchair basketball clinic at UConn in November. His foundation was ready to donate $45,000 worth of specialized wheelchairs and equipment and to set up a scholarship endowment for individuals with disabilities who wished to play adaptive sports at UConn. At the time, he was waiting to see which way UConn wanted to go; he envisioned a wheelchair basketball program that could some day compete with the likes of established programs such as the University of Illinois or the University of Alabama.
But it was not to be. When Martin walked into a meeting with his checks in hand to get the program started, he was stunned to be told that there would not be a wheelchair basketball program.
"This note is in follow-up to our conversation on February 23, 2018 when we met with [associate director for development for athletics] Ted Woodward and [associate director of athletics for facilities management] Evan Feinglass to discuss your proposal to create a Wheelchair Basketball Team at the University of Connecticut," Michael Gilbert, vice president for Student Affairs at UConn, wrote in an email to Martin, which Martin provided to the Courant. "In that meeting, I confirmed that the Division of Student Affairs will not take the lead to launch this program, but is available to work directly with the Husky Adaptive Sport Club and/or other currently enrolled students if they wish to create a Club Sport team in the future."
Neither Korbel nor Gilbert could be reached for comment.
Martin was disappointed.
"I think we're too far along in the process for that to be an acceptable answer," he said. "There were students who wanted this program. We were waiting to give university the chairs. I wanted to know what the level of commitment was from the university. I wasn't looking for a ton of money. I was looking for UConn to want to put their stamp on this.
"I understand there is a budget crisis but if there was a commitment, it wouldn't cost them that much money to get started. Initially, you wouldn't go zero to club sport overnight. But you're stunting the potential growth by not accepting a gift, and there is a population on campus."
Martin said there were 8-10 disabled students on campus who were interested and about 30 able-bodied students who wanted to help out. Through his camps and clinics, he knows many other kids who would want to go to UConn if wheelchair basketball was offered.
Instead, UConn's Recreation Department will offer a minimum of one adaptive sport event per semester, which could include, according to the email, wheelchair basketball, seated volleyball, swimming, adaptive rock climbing and goalball.
Mitchell DuBuc, a biomedical engineering major from Adams, Mass., who is the treasurer of Husky Adaptive Sports and who would have played on the team, said that isn't enough.
"I feel like it's a missed opportunity for kids who haven't come out yet because it wasn't established," said DuBuc, who is paralyzed from the waist down due to acute myeloid leukemia which compressed his spinal cord at age 10.
"When I was looking for a college, there was nothing in the area like this.
"I guess I can see where they're coming from in terms of support. But we had a handful of people with disabilities who were ready to play. Beyond that, there was a large group of able-bodied students who were supporting the program and who would have played if we needed people to play.
"To me it seemed like the school was behind it and supportive. I was very surprised when [Martin] came back and told us that it was denied."
Nationally, there are 13 college teams that play an intercollegiate schedule under the umbrella of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. Then there are a number of other collegiate programs in a variety of sports that play local or regional schedules.
Martin wanted the university to back the program and make it something that UConn would be known for.
"I think there was enough of a population to get it started," he said. "I know the population would have come."
Jones liked the idea of playing basketball in college; her father liked the idea of her playing at UConn, where women's basketball is a marquee sport.
"UConn is a great school and has a great basketball program and it could make a difference in adaptive sports," Jones said. "It had an ability to make an impact on adaptive sports. It was sad to see they chose not to go in that direction."
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