Columbia State Representative Chuck Graham’s decision to play wheelchair basketball at the University of Illinois changed his life.
His leadership in creating a wheelchair basketball program at MU might change the lives of future disabled athletes.
In the fall, MU will become the ninth university to recognize wheelchair basketball as a varsity sport.
The new team will be coed, will offer five scholarships and will play in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association’s Intercollegiate Division.
The program will not be a part of MU’s athletic department. Instead, it will belong to MU’s Recreation Services.
“This is an intercollegiate sport,” said Diane Dahlmann, director of Recreation Services and Facilities for MU.
“It will be providing scholarships. Those will be talent, not need-based scholarships.”
In addition to the wheelchair basketball program, Dahlmann said that Recreation Services will provide a personal training program to all MU students with motor disabilities.
“I am extremely enthusiastic about the personal training program,” Dahlmann said.
“If we could provide a personal training program to students with motor disabilities, then, in fact, one, we aggressively welcome them in the door. Two, we aggressively help them be in the best possible physical shape they can be in order to help them negotiate and navigate a campus that sometimes physically has a number of barriers.”
The new program is a product of a choice Graham had to make as a high school senior.
Graham grew up in Louisiana, Mo., which is on the Missouri-Illinois border 30 miles south of Hannibal. He applied to and was accepted at Missouri and Illinois.
Although MU offered him a full scholarship, Graham said the campus provided practically no support for students with disabilities. Illinois, though, provided a campus of support.
He said the difference was stark.
“At the time, MU had two acceptable dorm rooms and really no support system at all for students with disabilities: Transportation, athletics, academic support,’’ Graham said. “They literally had nothing.”
When Graham visited Illinois, he saw a campus of support. He said there was a wide variety of housing options for students with disabilities, as well as academic support and a transportation system.
“And then (Illinois) started recruiting me,” Graham said. “And I thought ‘Wow, what a difference.’”
The choice between financing and a campus of support that included college athletics left its mark on Graham. When he graduated, he said he vowed that if he had the chance to eliminate that choice, he would.
When Graham assumed the chairmanship of education in the State House three years ago, he put financing in the budget to start a wheelchair basketball program at MU.
He originally allocated $250,000 a year for a wheelchair basketball program, but that amount has fallen to $173,200 as the state’s economy has faltered.
Is $173,200 enough to start a successful program?
“That’s a starting point,” said Mike Frogley, Illinois’ wheelchair basketball coach.
Frogley then ran through the numbers: $40,000 for a coach, plus the cost of benefits, program operations, equipment and travel, all of which he said will total another $70,000.
“Which means you’ve got $60,000 left to apply towards scholarships, and that will tell you what kind of athletes you will recruit,” he said.
Graham agrees that the financing level is merely a place to start.
“Once you’ve got a program, then you can go sell that program, but you have to have something to show for it,” he said.
Associate Athletic Director Sarah Reesman said the inclusion of the personal training program for all MU students with physical disabilities prompted the decision to place the wheelchair basketball program in Recreation Services.
“While wheelchair basketball is expected to be a component, I think there is going to be more to it,” she said.
“They (Recreation and Services) are going to start offering personal training for people with physical disabilities starting in January and things like that, that we (the athletic department) simply wouldn’t be able to offer.
“So I think the idea was that there would be greater opportunities (and) more access to facilities and that kind of thing through Recreation and Facilities.”
There is a qualifying air to how Frogley and Graham describe the program’s placement in Recreation Services as opposed to the athletic department.
“I actually met with (Mike Alden, MU’s athletic director), talking about the program and having it in athletics,” Frogley said.
“For various reasons it’s in the Recreation program. Hey, that’s fine. No problem. The important thing is that the kids get opportunities first and foremost, and then we’ll go from there.”
Said Graham, “I put it originally in the athletic department because I thought that’s where a varsity sport should be located, and I am not sure it matched fully with the vision the athletic department had. It wasn’t something that came from internal development. It was something that was kind of thrust upon them.
“Recreation Services was interested in it, and I thought, ‘Well, let’s at least get it started there. Get it going. Get it off the ground, and we could push for fuller inclusion on down the road.’”
Frogley and Graham view the inclusion of wheelchair athletics in college athletic departments to be an issue as significant as Title IX, which allowed equal scholarship opportunities to women in sports.
“This will be the defining issue in the first 30 years of this century,” Frogley said.
“I think that gradually institutions are starting to realize that there’s a large population of individuals out there who they (the institutions) need to meet the needs of in a much better way.”
Graham sees the issue of inclusion for athletes with disabilities developing at a much quicker pace.
“I see it happening in the next 10 (years),” he said.
“The University of Illinois has had that program for over 50 years, and they still have not gotten to be a part of their athletic department.”
Will a program in Recreation Services bring further inclusion for athletes with physical disabilities?
“I think there is still a lot of work we have to do with the attitudes of people, and a lot of it is just lack of exposure,” Graham said.
“And that’s why I think the program is so important. Not just for those students who have the opportunity to compete and be successful, but I think for the rest of the student body and for the rest of the athletes in the community.”