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Friday, August 14, 2009

As Usual the NYT Misses the Point

In today's New York Times sport section there is story about Jerrod Fields, a gifted runner who is an amputee and will compete in the 2012 Paralympic Games. See "An Injured Soldier Re-emerges as a Sprinter". The NYT article is a typical example of how disability is poorly discussed and is yet another lost opportunity to educate the public. Far too much space is devoted to discussing the circumstance of how Fields, a United States Army corporal, lost his leg. The story also relies on a great hook, a line to suck the reader into the story: Fields is quoted as stating: "Cut it off, he told doctors. I want to go back to Iraq". Golly how tough, how manly, how ever so military and, to me, misleading. The stage is set, Fields is not your typical amputee--he is harder than nails. He puts all those other whiners who were injured to shame. This ignores the reality people do not want to think about: the lack of funding for disabled veterans that have lost a limb, poor conditions in veteran administration hospitals, and long waiting lists for needed rehabilitation services.

In focusing on Fields experience in Iraq and his childhood (his parents died when he was very young and he grew up in the inner city of Chicago infested with gangs) the NYT article fails to place value on Fields athletic achievement. He is not simply a world class athlete but rather a amazing man that has overcome physical and social obstacles. While this is may be true, the human interest focus is demeaning. It also neglects to explain the nuances and divisions with the running categories for those that will compete in the Paralympic Games. No mention is made of the significant difference between being a below the knee amputee versus an above the knew amputee. Passing reference is made to Oscar Pistorius, the most well-known Paralympic athlete, and prosthesis technology. In place of these important issues the reader is confronted with melodrama: "Fields acclimated to a prosthetic foot so quickly that he found himself barely missing the real one. He ran swiftly and even did standing backflips". Would such a sentence ever appear in a story about a world class athlete without a disability? Not a chance. The sentence quoted is followed by a comment that Fields had never heard of the Parlympic Games until a fellow soldier told him about them. My first thought when I read this was stories such as the one I was reading were exactly why no one knows what the Paralympic Games are. Instead of legitimate sport coverage of these world class athletes we get human interest fluff. What do readers remember? I read a story about a disabled Iraq veteran that could run really fast with a prosthesis. Here the disability comes first, the person second, the prosthesis third. Absent is the high level of athletic competition and accomplishment. The fact Fields will run against other athletes from all over the world is glossed over and no mention is made of the fact the Paralympic Games are not televised live (they are rebroadcast on the obscure cable station Universal Sports). No wonder Field and most Americans have never heard of the Paralympic Games.

What I find most distressing about the NYT article is that adaptive sports are amazingly exciting. I think anyone with a passing interest in sports would be drawn to the athletes involved, the creative and unique adaptations, technology, and intensity of the competition. Paralympians are intense and colorful athletes that are truly devoted to a given sport and make significant sacrifices to compete. To date, only one popular sporting event, the X Games, has embraced athletes with a disability. The response based on what I have observed is enthusiastic. This enthusiasm is not based on human interest but respect for the skill level of the competitors and athletic achievement. And this, sadly, is what the NYT chose to ignore.

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