A Discussion with Eli A. Wolff

With: Eli A. Wolff Berkley Center Profile

June 21, 2012

Background: This conversation took place on June 21, between Michael Bodakowski, Claudia Zambra, and Eli Wolff. The context was an ongoing exploration of Olympic values for the twenty-first century. Eli reflected on his role working at the intersection of sport, academia, and policy, and the important overlaps among the three. Eli is himself a Paralympian, and that experience has helped to guide his professional work which has focused on sports as a human right, particularly disability sport. He describes his current work as director of the Sport and Development Project at Brown University, and his involvement in different causes, including a Supreme Court case and with the United Nations on disability issues and human rights. Olympic values, Eli says, are a key component in helping to propel a paradigm shift towards the inclusion of marginalized groups in sport, but he stresses that there is still far to go; athletes are not always exposed to the centrality and important of values, he says. He sees educating youth and the next generation as the key to promoting Olympic values and inclusion. Capturing oral histories and storytelling in advocating for human rights and inclusion of values in sport and society have special importance. He underscores that, while there are many different initiatives on sport, inclusion, and values, a central guiding mechanism is lacking.

How has your personal experience helped to shape where you are today, and the life road you have taken?

Social justice, human rights, and issues of equality have been central interests since I was very young. This is in part because I myself have a disability and see the world through that lens, and in part because my family and mentors have inspired me in different ways. When I was involved as an athlete, my competition in both non-disabled sports and in the disability realm of sports allowed me to see the disparity in access and barriers to participation. I started to become interested as a student, but there was nothing for me to read or research about people with disabilities in sport. I took classes as a student at Brown and did my thesis and fellowship there, and I began my own investigation. That really opened the door for me to realize that there was a gap in giving voice to people with disabilities in the sports culture. I also started seeing parallels between people with disabilities and other topics, including gender and socioeconomic disparities.

Richard Lapchick, my mentor, was very supportive, and introduced me to different opportunities. When I graduated from college, the Casey Martin court case was going on, and it occurred to me that there was not a voice coming from the broader disability community. Casey Martin had successfully sued the PGA tour for the right to use a golf cart during competition, under the Americans with Disabilities Act. I’m not sure what sparked my interest, but I saw the suit as a chance to bring more attention to issues of disability and I was able to organize a coalition of groups to support Martin. The PGA was afraid that a ruling in favor of Martin would open a Pandora’s Box and that everyone with a disability would make a claim for accommodation.

I then went on to work at Northeastern University at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, which Richard Lapchick started. Two years ago, I moved to Brown University. There, the approach is more on the engaged scholar side, not just sitting in the office but working with the community and key stakeholders and partners.

Over the years, the lens has broadened; I have become interested in sports as a vehicle for and focus of human rights. This came about when I started working with the United Nations on the disability rights treaty. I realized that disabilities was only one piece of the puzzle and that the human rights and development perspective paints a broader picture. I thus became engaged in the broader sports for development movement.

The reality with disabilities in sport is that it is all about trying to reach your potential. Those with disabilities in sports don’t want to change the rules to compete with able bodies, just to make it fair and just for all. Almost everything centers on values, principles, and social justice; it’s a very holistic model and the unique perspective I bring is the disability piece. What I value the most in the last ten years was being given the chance to contribute and focus on the next generation of young people coming up. I focus a lot on college students, to engage them on college campuses to form SportsCorps social justice student clubs.

Can you tell us more about your work with disabled golf?

With any sport, whether golf or soccer, track or basketball, the idea is to reach your potential in that sport, whether at the PGA (professional) level, or a recreational and amateur level, I think the PGA’s specific case with Casey Martin (which he won), set the standard that people with disabilities can be involved with sports at all levels as long as there’s a reasonable accommodation and there’s fair play, without giving them an unfair advantage. That case has paved the way, both in America and worldwide, in terms of realizing that people with disabilities need to be within sports and not beside sports. For example right now we are working with the NCAA and college sports to promote the idea that disabled people are within the society, not on the sidelines.

We are also looking at what inclusion means holistically, on and off the playing field. If you’re a part of a sports event or are participating in sports, not just disabled people but any person on the margin; gay or lesbian, person of color or elderly, the question is, how do you experience discrimination? If a family goes to an event and the elderly grandmother goes with you, how do you appreciate that experience from the time you take public transportation to the time you return home? It’s the perspective of universal design. You have to look at the whole experience from the time you arrive at the event to the time you return home. Part of what’s happening is the working with economic realities so that that making a really positive experience for people at the margins actually helps everybody and is a growth opportunity for everybody involved.

Returning to golf, I think the Casey Martin case has been recognized as a landmark case. At the time I had just graduated from college and I was motivated. Someone in my network helped me set up a conversation with the lawyers of the case, and I talked to them about what I thought could help. My perspective and that of my colleagues were that sports and disability rights perspectives provided a unique lens to prepare the case. The lawyers on the case had the disabilities background. My perspective was on the sports intersection.

Growing from the Casey case, the greatest moment for me was at the UN when the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was ratified. The UN convention highlighted that the sports and disabilities piece really is part of a larger conversation about human values and understanding. That’s why I am interested in Olympism, and as I was also an athlete in the Paralympics, I realize that many athletes are not exposed to Olympism and what it’s about. My colleague Nathaniel Mills and I started the Olympism Project to raise awareness and create a forum for education and dialogue on Olympism.

Do you see the three central Olympic values (excellence, respect, and friendship) as a guiding light in the Olympics movement in practice? What else can be done at the local, regional, and international levels?

A big part of values and how we respect people, and understand human dignity, comes down to how we speak to each other and reflect on that, whether with racial slurs, disability slurs or gender slurs. From a disability context, the use of words like “retard” is very common in our schools and families, and in the sports context there are phrases such as “that is such a retard play,” or “such a retarded athlete.” At the broader level sports can create more consciousness within our society of what this means to the athletes, to the fans, and to people. While I think sports do not always have these conversations, the social consciousness is growing; there are more initiatives that take some of these issues on frontally. But it would be interesting to see the Olympic committee do something around language, and go beyond political correctness, to see it as people really experience it.

At another level, it is helpful to introduce some human rights language and some of the mechanisms associated with rights to understand dignity and inclusion. One view in the principles of Olympism is seeing sports as a human right and realizing that non-discrimination is a major component. But being able to set more standards and guidelines for all would tie in the ethical and moral pieces to the policy. There is not really a charter on sports in terms of looking at ethics and values that the Sports Federation or UN have signed off on. It would be interesting to start a process that would result in a declaration or call to action for accountability for sports towards values and human rights. Sport as a right is one of the realms outside of the responsibility of current monitoring mechanism. While there is a court of arbitration in sports, there could be more enforcement mechanisms. That offers one way to bring these values to sports.

Another way to do this is to look at the next generation of youth and leaders. It’s their stories that help people to see how the experiences of marginalization have affected people. A lot of the people who are promoting human rights and justice in sports have personal stories that have sparked their call to action. Collecting those stories, sharing them, and making them real could help tremendously is building awareness.

We need to work on multiple levels to bring these ideas to reality. You can’t just do lip service; you need a context of policy and monitoring so that the movement can be taken more seriously.

What are the most important contributions that academic institutions are making towards work on values and sports? Have you thought about the core Olympic values through your work?

There is some engaged scholarship linking academia and practitioners, but more can be done to bridge the gaps. There are not a lot of initiatives now, but it will be interesting to see what happens with the Olympic Studies Center meeting.

The Olympic Studies Centre meeting will be held at Luxborough College, from July 25-26, with all the recognized Olympic studies centers; the IOC has recognized about 20 institutions around the world with Olympic centers and initiatives, including the most well known, in Loughborough, Barcelona and Lausanne. There is a lot of potential for connectivity between the educational institutions and the Olympic movement. I look forward to going and seeing the outcomes. I will present our work at Brown University. We had a course this last year on Olympism in society, and the students made a video. It was a small self-directed course, and it looked at perspectives from the students on the street about what they know about the Olympics, Paralympics etc. I am involved in a project now, mapping universities and scholars that offer courses and initiatives around Olympism, focusing on scholars who have attended the U.S. National Olympic Academy. One reason is that the last time U.S. had a National Olympic Academy was in 1999. We are trying to rejuvenate an initiative to recreate a national an Olympic Academy in the U.S. We are hoping that as an outcome of the research project, we can mobilize the U.S. Olympic Committee to this end.

Over the last couple of years, I have been involved with projects that develop narratives of social change. We just put out a publication, a start. I am hoping to do another soon around more story telling. There is an initiative under way by the Mohammad Ali Center, called Generation Ali, working with the next generation to take a stand on social justice and human rights—I am working with them on the sports side. I see Generation Ali as a potential home and community for athletes involved with social change. A couple of years ago I worked with an initiative that interviewed athletes to look at their stories and the parallels they were making between sports experience and social change. Not all athletes will be involved, but the lessons and learning through sports do have that potential. One example is that as an athlete you have constantly to think critically about your situation in terms of how to make the play or be innovative to score the goal; there is a component of critical thinking and making good decisions. You can apply this notion of critical thinking to social justice, which is very much about critical thinking.

Another component is to see the situation of your teammates. You see them in strife and try to build them up; that is a form of social justice built on empathy, compassion, and reflectivity. However, not a lot has been a lot done on that, though it is all there in the Olympic charter. As I have said, there is not a formal landmark policy framework that speaks to sports and human rights—it does not really exist. There are a number of initiatives, but to concretize it, we need another level of structure like a binding document that the whole community can rally behind.

Can you reflect on your personal experience, on how having competed in the Paralympics has shaped your career?

I had the chance to compete in 1996 and 2004 Paralympic Games. I played forward and striker, and it was among the first times I had been exposed much to others with similar disabilities. It was a powerful experience overall.

Initially however, having competed on my high school soccer team, and then the college team at Brown, I was able to see sports from the “non-disabled” side. Then, moving to the Paralympics, though things have improved, when I got involved, it was interesting to see the support, or lack thereof, and the disorganization and confusion around what the Paralympics is all about. There was a duality between the “regular” sports teams and the Paralympic teams, specifically related to how the Paralympics was valued, the way it was perceived, the stigma, and the isolation happening. Despite some growing pains, the Paralympics was an amazing experience and I enjoyed the teammates and competition. Even though there were times of disorganization or lack of structure, uniforms and playing fields, it was interesting to be a part of that growth.

My soccer coach at Brown had connections to the U.S. Soccer Federation and Major League Soccer. He was supportive of my being on the national team, and I was involved with working with U.S. soccer to get the Paralympics program and disability soccer more recognized by the soccer world, which I thought was an important step. It was actually at the same time that women’s soccer was coming to fruition and 1996 was the year the U.S. team won the gold, so I thought the conversation about soccer players with disabilities was a nice segue to social justice. I was always the player on the team asking these larger questions. It has not been an easy path—the work has elements of entrepreneurship, academic rigor, and advocacy, touching on many cross sector issues. It has been great chance to be a part of a growing movement. Even now there is this question of where will I be—will I stay in academia, working for nonprofit or work on media side. I feel I have the potential for writing and innovation, and in many ways that is what I bring to the table. I want to keep writing more essays, articles, poetry. I think that is the next chapter for me. I think I can use non-fiction and creative writing to get the message out there. There are not a lot of voices for this, and if I can be a voice then maybe that might motivate other people too.

I hope this movement focused on values and sport, crossing communities, will continue to converge. I am glad to see that at your conference you will include the next generation; that is important. And it is important to build a strong mentorship program so that young people will be supported, especially constructing projects or fellowships, so that the youth have a framework to work for a specific outcome.

How is the disabled movement that you spoke about in the U.S. progressing in other countries?

There is a growing amount of support internationally. In some of the stronger soccer countries, Brazil, Germany, France, England, and Argentina, attention is increasing. And the Paralympic movement in general has seen a paradigm shift in the last five years where athletes with disabilities do fit into the picture. There are stories of struggle, in developing countries in particular, where there is still a resource struggle and challenges related to stigma. There is still a certain lip service and tokenism when approaching disability soccer. It is not exclusion, but people are not recognizing the inclusion of disability soccer as a priority.

You can make the case for women’s sports as well in much the same terms. In some places there are great strides while in others there is still a long way to go. It is about championing and finding good practices and case studies, and bringing them to light. In the same way you see some athletes supporting social justice work, and valuing the true value of sport. Sometimes there are amazing leaders, but other times nothing is really happening.

One of my students is now in Dominica with the Olympic committee, running a youth Olympic values program. Is her work is for the betterment of youth, or simply for the perception of the Olympic committee? There is a struggle about intentions versus outcomes, and how we can make this meaningful and core to the Olympic movement.

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