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Where Do Able-Bodied Athletes Belong In Wheelchair Basketball?

BEIJING - SEPTEMBER 14: Jonathan Hall of Great Britain battles with Brendan Dowler of Australia in the Wheelchair Basketball match between Australia and Great Britain at the National Indoor Stadium during day eight of the 2008 Paralympic Games September 14, 2008 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

It can be jarring, upon attending the average Canadian wheelchair basketball tournament, to see many of the athletes up and walking around without any sign of disability. Canada has a lengthy history of able-bodied athletes—affectionately (or, sometimes not so affectionately) known as ABs—competing in the highest levels of domestic competition. In contrast, the U.S. has vehemently stuck to the tradition of reserving the sport for disabled athletes. That, however, is beginning to change.

The issue is endlessly complex, but each side’s position is simple to summarize. Traditionalists, let’s call them, argue that able-bodied athletes have a multitude of sports they can pick from. Why, the argument goes, do they have to pick a disabled sport to dominate too? Those in favor of change, including some long-time athletes, argue that wheelchair basketball can’t claim to be truly inclusive if it declines to allow those who aren’t classifiable (read: don’t have a recognized disability affecting their body in rather specific ways) to play. 

The traditionalists still reign internationally, a policy that most on either side of the domestic divide agree with (whether able-bodied athletes can play at the Paralympics versus whether they deserve to play at the gym down the street are very different questions). A stalemate has formed between the International Paralympic Committee and the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation after a review of the classification code that governs who can play. In short, each player is assigned a point value from 1 to 4.5—there are half-point increments based on ability. A 4.5 is likely to be a relatively minimal disability such as heavily blown-out knees, a hip issue that significantly hampers movement, or a single-leg amputee. Those in the 1.0 classification are often affected in all four limbs and have minimal trunk function. To qualify for international tournaments, a team’s lineup cannot total above 14 points.

The reclassification has seen some athletes removed from competition, or “classed out.” David Eng, a two-time Paralympic gold medallist for Canada, is now ineligible to compete in Tokyo. The U.K.’s George Bates told the BBC that his disability, complex regional pain syndrome, was formerly graded a 4.5 but now is no longer classified at all. "I have been deemed to be the 'wrong kind' of disabled," Bates said, noting that he’s contemplating having his leg amputated to regain his eligibility.

What would wheelchair basketball look like if the goal was to get more people to play? In 2016, the U.S.’s National Wheelchair Basketball Association, one of the oldest leagues in the world, piloted a program where able-bodied athletes could compete in the women’s and collegiate divisions. While that pilot was not immediately renewed after its initial three-year stint, a motion was passed at the organization’s most annual assembly in June to again permit able-bodied athletes in those divisions. (The motion had been put forward a year earlier, but fell a few votes short at the COVID-abbreviated meetings.) 

Dug Jones, a longtime NWBA administrator in the collegiate division, was one of the main organizers of the motion. He told me that one of the main benefits and goals of the move was growth for the sport. During the pilot program the intercollegiate division grew from 11 teams to 17. 

“We knew we really needed to have more than then eight or nine intercollegiate teams,” Jones said, “and we also knew that that many of our fledgling teams, teams that were not quite ready to declare themselves a part of the intercollegiate division, were playing, in essence, intramural wheelchair basketball, using able-bodied players on their campuses.”

According to Jones, who is soon to take up a position on the NWBA’s board, intercollegiate teams face additional barriers that community teams simply do not. There’s often no funding from university athletic departments, so prospective student-athletes are often faced with tuition costs they can’t meet, and they have to battle through the college admissions process before they can compete. Add in the cost of equipment, transport, and staff, and you have quite the set of hurdles. 

There are some who think the NWBA’s change isn’t happening fast enough. Enter the North American Wheelchair Basketball League. Set to begin play this fall, the competition is founded on the principle that all can play, an idea that founder Keith Wallace said has been mulling for more than a decade. While he doesn’t see the NAWBL as a challenger to the NWBA (administrators from both organizations told me their relationship is generally amicable), Wallace was open about his frustrations with the system as it was being run. 

“I've always said that it's always one decision, one bad decision away from somebody making their own league,” Wallace said. “I've been very outspoken about that. It's not that we couldn't do it in the current one, but … sometimes you don't feel you’re being heard or being included.”

Mak Nong is one of the athletes who believes that the NAWBL’s mission will grow the sport. Nong, a former captain of the University of Illinois men’s wheelchair basketball team and professional player in France, works with Wallace and subscribes to the idea that true competition means more than whether someone happens to have a disability. He said that those who believe that this will take away opportunities from disabled athletes are overstating the issue. Under the math most leagues use, he pointed out, it would mean a limit of two able-bodied athletes on the court at one time. 

Nong also said, echoing a common refrain, that athletes who feel they are being disadvantaged and want to play at the elite level, may need to reflect. “How is this person taking away your spot? Is it because they're pushing harder? Are they training more?”

Here in Canada, a long history of able-bodied participation in parasports means athletes and administrators are excited for the development in the U.S. and international communities—and frustrated by its pace. For the vocal majority in this country, the focus has long been on integration.

Darrell Nordell, a former player and longtime coach, is able-bodied. Nordell became involved as an administrator first. He started working for the Edmonton Northern Lights Wheelchair Basketball Society in the ‘90s and hasn’t stopped. He’s also the head coach of the Canadian men’s U23 team and has coached at the Paralympics. He emphasized just how hapless he was at the beginning of his playing career.

“I just could not figure it out,” Nordell told me. “I couldn't even figure out how to pick up a ball for the longest time until someone showed me how to use the wheel. So that's what really gravitated me to the sport: that [the wheelchair] was just another piece of equipment. This piece of wheelchair was like a hockey stick, or a pole vault pole, or a tennis racket.”

Michael Broughton, also able-bodied, played the sport and went on to coach at the national level. A longtime coach in Ontario’s junior basketball programs, Broughton (who was my coach more than a decade ago in Saskatchewan) said that his entrance into the sport came from his mother’s work with disabled children. “Because she was familiar and comfortable with disability she wanted the same for us.”

Broughton bristles, as many able-bodied athletes do, that they have any competitive advantage over disabled athletes just because they can walk to their wheelchairs. “Provincially or internationally,” he said, “you can't just hop in a chair as an able-bodied athlete and just go and expect results.”

It’s fair to say that not all athletes support full integration, and that some may not feel comfortable speaking out, something Keith Wallace acknowledged as a potential concern when the NWBA surveyed disabled athletes during its pilot program. But those surveyed were overwhelmingly in favor of letting able-bodied athletes compete. It’s not about who wins, Mak Nong says, but rather who plays. “We live in a day and age where we take pride in being inclusive, right? How can we say that we're inclusive if we're stopping people from joining?”

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