Bulletin News

Professor Plays Key Role in Historic Athletics Decision


The Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) in late January adopted a new policy to provide varsity intercollegiate opportunities for student-athletes with disabilities, a historic decision guided by a pioneering SUNY Cortland sport management professor.

Essentially, the move marks a major step towards including athletes of all abilities in NCAA competitions.

The new legislation is based on four principles of inclusion to facilitate the integration of athletes with disabilities into select ECAC championships and competitions beginning as early as 2015-16. Sports targeted for new adapted events include rowing, swimming, tennis and track and field. New sport disciplines could include sled hockey and wheelchair basketball.

“Greater integration of athletes with disabilities into intercollegiate varsity sport will help to create a new equity paradigm in sport,” said Professor Ted Fay, a Paralympic expert who was singled out as a policy leader in the conference’s announcement. “It’s similar to the past half century regarding race and gender integration in sport and society.”

The ECAC includes more than 300 member institutions across Divisions I, II and III. The conference, recognized nationally for its strength in men’s and women’s ice hockey, offers postseason championship opportunities, regional recognition, awards and other membership benefits. Nearly all members belong to another primary league in most sports, including SUNY Cortland.

“Pushing for the ECAC to be this laboratory for this new inclusion effort was very strategic,” Fay said, noting the conference’s geographic reach and its ability to serve as a de facto intercollegiate championship for sports that include student-athletes with disabilities.

Explaining the four principles of inclusion is critical to understanding the action’s significance, Fay said. The first and second principles describe what already exists within many NCAA sports and championship competitions; the third and fourth principles make the new ECAC effort truly groundbreaking.

“We use the terms inclusion or inclusive sport with intention to describe an environment that includes student-athletes with and without disabilities competing within the same context,” Fay said. “To restrict a team to only athletes with disabilities is akin to segregating sport by race, like the Negro Leagues in professional baseball or college sports in the South prior to the 1970s.”

Here’s a breakdown of the four principles:

Principle No. 1 applies to student-athletes with a disability who do not require any sport-specific accommodation. An example would be a student with a diagnosed learning disability. “There are many student-athletes — very successful athletes, All-American athletes — who have these types of disabilities and are already competing in a fully inclusive environment,” Fay said.

Principle No. 2 applies to student-athletes who require minor sport-specific accommodations. Popular examples include Anthony Robles, a former 2011 NCAA national champion wrestler who was born with one leg; Jim Abbott, the former University of Michigan and Major League Baseball pitcher who was born without a right hand; and Marla Runyon, the visually impaired former San Diego State and Olympic and Paralympic distance runner. Despite their physical limitations, each competed without a competitive advantage or a special accommodation.

Principle No. 3 allows for adapted events to be added in existing ECAC championships and competitions. This could mean including a singles match in tennis that features two competitors in wheelchairs or a wheelchair-specific race at a track and field meet. “What you’re doing is adding scoring events for athletes who need a more extensive accommodation compared to their peers,” Fay said, noting sports such as rowing and swimming are also being considered for inclusion of adapted events in ECAC competition.

Principle No. 4 brings the most noticeable change to the intercollegiate varsity sports landscape by allowing the creation of adapted team sports in ECAC competitions and championships. Examples could include wheelchair basketball or ice sled hockey. Student-athletes with and without disabilities would be able to compete, as long as they use the same equipment, Fay said.

The ECAC’s decision marks the first by an NCAA-sanctioned conference to provide a comprehensive range of options for students with disabilities beyond recreation, intramurals and club sports. The conference’s framework is the culmination of four-plus years of progress and for more than a year the ECAC worked with NCAA Office of Inclusion.

Fay hopes to eventually see the ECAC’s inclusive sport model adopted by more NCAA conferences, resulting in national championship opportunities for student-athletes with disabilities.

“It’s going to have to gain some traction to get fleshed out for a bit,” Fay said.

The chair of SUNY Cortland’s Sports Management Department, Fay has been working on social justice issues for more than 40 years with much of his energy focused on civil rights and advocacy issues related to sports. He was heavily involved in the creation of the International Paralympic Committee, having served many roles tied to the Winter Paralympic Games as well as the 1988 Winter Olympic Games.

He also is a senior fellow for the Inclusive Sport Initiative at the Institute for Human Centered Design in Boston, vice president of Adaptive Sport New England and a consultant with the Boston 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Bid Committee with a focus on education strategies.

Fay likened the road ahead to the effort he led during the 1980s to integrate the U.S. Paralympic cross country and alpine ski teams with the U.S. Ski Team. He said the goal of achieving social justice in sports is the same now as it was then: earn buy-in from organizations such as national sport governing bodies with the long-term goal of full inclusion.

“This is everything we expect in life in terms of being social human beings, with each of us having basic human rights,” he said.