Michigan State’s Unified Sports program brings community together in sportsmanship
MSU students and Special Olympics athletes come together in Unified Sports, bringing fun, competition and respect.
It’s October 2022 and Michigan State is about to claim victory over Michigan in football.
But this isn’t the Spartan team led by quarterback Payton Thorne that took on Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines on Oct. 29. It’s not an alternate reality, either.
It’s a team made up of Special Olympians and students from both universities. MSU’s only gridiron victory against UM this season came courtesy of its Unified Sports program.
Michigan State’s intramural Unified Sports features two sports: basketball and flag football. There are multiple teams for each, facing off against one another at roughly the same schedule as other IM sports.
The team is composed of MSU students and individuals with intellectual disabilities in the surrounding area. Some travel as far as Ann Arbor to participate in the league. This year, the program had roughly 100 participants.
MSU’s Unified Sports has been given the label of “National Unified Champion School” by the Special Olympics. That means the program meets the 10 standards set by the Special Olympics.
For many athletes, students and parents, the aforementioned rivalry game against Michigan’s Unified Sports team is the highlight of the season. The two teams square off annually, electing to clash the Friday before the NCAA teams play.
That game goes on, rain or shine - last year’s game was played in a torrential downpour.
“That was a rough game. We had people in the bleachers with signs cheering us on in the pouring rain, everyone was running and slipping,” Emma Hofer, president of MSU’s Unified Sports program, said. “It was super fun. All the athletes were screaming and chanting go green. We got the big trophy, celebrating in the rain. It was very memorable - something I won't forget.”
New friendships and connections have certainly been a by-product of the program. Hofer joined the program as a freshman and stuck around for four years, meeting plenty of athletes along the way.
“You make great connections with people,” Hofer said. “It was very leaving our last basketball game knowing I might not see some of these athletes again. It was very much a community the four years I was in it.”
She’s not alone. Friendships often blossom as a result of the program, with the MSU students and athletes interacting outside of the games as well.
“I'm in Brody and some of my athletic friends work there. On their breaks, if I'm eating there, they’ll come sit with me and chat with me. I get daily text messages and calls from people,” Hofer said. “Some people who have graduated are still in contact with some athletes. So it's just a kind of lifelong friendship that you wouldn't necessarily just meet out on the street.”
Barry Greer has played in unified sports for multiple years now. Greer is extremely athletic: participating in Special Olympics events, hooping regularly, bowling and playing both of the sports offered by the unified program - there doesn’t seem to be much in sports that he hasn’t at least dabbled in.
He’s especially lethal in basketball - he’s not one to get into a three-point shooting contest with.
In addition to those athletic achievements, Greer has made plenty of connections along the way. While he’s met fellow athletes during his playing career, unified sports allows Greer, and his fellow athletes, to interact with students and peers without intellectual disabilities.
“I think it teaches the students and it gives them a different perspective,” Lee Greer, Barry’s dad, said. “Some kids grow up and they've never been around the special needs kid.”
However, not all the athletes are quite as social as Greer, who could probably make a lifelong friend in line at the grocery store.
For some, it presents a unique social opportunity to come out of their shell, and again, make new friends.
“Some (of the athletes) are super outgoing, so it's not hard to get them to interact with anyone. But some of them kind of keep to themselves and (are) nervous to talk with people, especially new students coming in,” Hofer said. “But there is always usually one or two people that really connect with some of those athletes, and then they make that bond and they start to break out of their shell. They start going for touchdowns or just running with the ball and they get super excited and then everyone's cheering for them.”