Great Expectations

Oct. 22, 2007
Oct. 22, 2007

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Oct. 22, 2007

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Great Expectations

Some parents say a Texas Special Olympics coach pushed kids too hard

IT WASN'T hard tospot a Steve Fleming--coached team. In the world of the Special Olympics—whichwrapped up their Summer World Games in China last week—effort and sportsmanshipare considered more important than winning or looking good. But Fleming'sbasketball, golf and soccer teams rarely lost and always looked sharp, nomismatched T-shirts or goofy-looking shorts. "Don't tell me thatspecial-needs kids don't realize what they're wearing," Fleming was fond ofsaying.

This is an article from the Oct. 22, 2007 issue

Fleming'sbasketball practices were not typical Special Olympics fare either, given thesuicide drills and trash-talking. "Don't bring that mess in here,"Fleming, 46, a Marine and the father of a 16-year-old mentally challenged son(below, in red), would shout if he blocked a player's shot during a scrimmage.His athletes talked smack right back. "We were like, 'We can't betouched,'" says Tony Moore, 18, who played guard for Fleming's hoops teamin Lewisville, a Dallas suburb. "Coach built our confidence, got us to dothings we didn't think we could. The other teams didn't know what hitthem."

Neither did someparents in Lewisville's Special Olympics delegation, which is one reasonFleming is now an ex-coach. His techniques made him a polarizing figure, evenas he won a state basketball title in 2005. "Our kids have a hard enoughtime being accepted by society," says Peggy Smith, whose daughter competesfor Lewisville. "If you take a child who's disabled and teach him totrash-talk, how is that going to help that child live in the real world?"Vicki Griffin, another Lewisville delegation parent, says Fleming would bebetter coaching kids who aren't disabled. "A Special Olympics coach hasnever made my son cry, but he managed to do that," she said. "Someparents just can't accept that their child isn't going to be normal, no matterwhat kind of fancy uniforms you dress them in."

In 2006 Flemingleft the Lewisville delegation and started his own, the Flower Mound Mustangs,in a nearby town. The two groups began bickering—Fleming was accused ofrecruiting Lewisville athletes—and in December 2006 both were put on probationby Special Olympics Texas. In July of this year the organization suspendedFleming for a year for, spokeswoman Kelly Coffey told The Dallas Morning News,"continued improper conduct of delegation leadership and inability tofollow policies and procedures of the organization."

The spat reflectsa larger disagreement among the parents of special-needs children: Should thosekids—in a classroom or on a basketball court—be treated as if they're specialor as if they're normal? "Some parents see their children as significantlyunlike typical developing kids, and they want them protected and supported inspecific ways," says David Chard, the dean of the SMU school of education."Other parents believe the best way to support their children is to givethem as many normative experiences as possible. In Steve's case, thatapparently includes trash-talking."

Some parentsloved the way Fleming challenged their kids, saying he raised the bar for whatcan be expected of them. "He treated them like they were realathletes," says Carolyn Sczepanski, whose son has Down syndrome and hasparticipated in the Special Olympics for 13 years. "And they loved it! Forsome of these kids, learning a play was the biggest accomplishment of theirlife."

Fleming, whohopes to return to coaching disabled athletes, can't believe he's been bannedfrom an organization he thinks could use more coaches like himself. "Ifigured I would be embraced by Texas Special Olympics," he says. "Itaught them to hold their heads high, to have confidence in themselves and tonever stop pushing themselves. If I die tomorrow, I know I helped thesekids."

PHOTOFLOWER MOUND MUSTANGS (SOCCER)PLAYING TO WIN Fleming (at rear) encouraged intensity and trash-talking.PHOTOMARK GRAHAM (FLEMINGS)