Sport and Disability


Simon is a twenty-three-year-old sufferer from epilepsy. Over the years he has progressively lost brain function as a result of repeated seizures. He completed his secondary education; however, he doesn’t have sufficient concentration to hold down a proper job and is bored and humiliated by the ‘sheltered workshop’ jobs he has had.

He has also been forced to withdraw from many recreational activities. Almost his only remaining pastime was his membership of the ‘fourths’ team in a local cricket competition. He turned up to every training session, ran errands for the team and did the jobs no-one else wanted to do. The club accepted him to a certain extent, but he was always on the outer socially, and at training no-one ever liked to bowl at full strength against him lest he be struck by the ball. He was never picked to play in a competition game.

Simon became distraught and hurt by the rejection, and his parents were bitter in their resentment of the club’s attitude. They felt the club was so interested in winning at all costs that they would not include their son. They felt the club was betraying the very principles community sport is based on: participation, enjoyment and acceptance. They further thought that the possibility of physical injury to Simon was not as significant as the continuing wounds to his self-esteem that resulted from his non-inclusion.

Club members were embarrassed by Simon and his odd manner and they justified not selecting him on the grounds that he might be injured.

Were they right?

The following scenario allows you to explore the viewpoints of a range of different people.

Finding The Facts

Members of Simon’s cricket club would do well to contact the Epilepsy Foundation to check on the effects of the condition on lifestyle issues and the implications of this for team sport.

The club’s coaches might be reassured to read an article on inclusive coaching by the AIS to see how they suggest supporting Simon and others with disabilities.

Play by the Rules

Members of the club and Simon’s family might take another look at the club’s constitution and rules to review both the ethos of the game and any limitations on membership criteria that might relate to Simon. An Australian site Play by the Rules has useful sections on preparing club policies and guidelines and on many issues that arise in community sports clubs including challenges around including players with disabilities. It is very attractively set out with lots of scenarios and practical suggestions and tries to show how sports can be both safe and inclusive.

The Spirit of the Game

Teammates could read Marion Clignet’s story to get a feel for why playing cricket is so important to Simon. They might also visit the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) website at Lord’s to capture a sense of the spirit of the game.

Simon’s parents would also be able to pinpoint Simon’s rights in the matter by looking at a document from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission on the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cwlth).

Negligence and Advocacy

They should also check the Headway Victoria website for possible consequences of head injuries that Simon might sustain during the bouts of vagueness and inattention he regularly experiences. They ought also to look at some brief notes of what constitutes negligence to check whether choosing Simon to play on the team could be construed as an unacceptable risk by the club if he was accidentally struck and seriously injured. This could make the club liable for damages as well as causing anguish to the other players involved.

Finally, they might be encouraged to read a bit about advocacy so that they can work out a positive way to pursue the issue with a club or association.


  • Read the articles that deal with the impact of epilepsy on the sporting life of players/coaches. What steps might Simon or the club take to reduce the risk of injury and enable Simon to play?
  • If there is any chance of Simon being injured, ought the club allow him to play?
  • According to the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act has Simon the right to play?

Broadening Perspectives

Ethical and philosophical issues underlying Simon’s difficulty with the club raise questions about the nature and purpose of sport. Two essays, ‘Sport, Education and the Meaning of Victory‘ (by Heather Reid) and ‘Elite Sport‘ (by Gunnar Breivik), both raise some interesting issues concerning sport and society and how attitudes to sport mirror attitudes to life.

Another article of interest is ‘Moral Reasoning in the Context of Sport‘ (by David Light Sheilds & Brenda Light Bredemeier). This discusses and questions the popular belief that ‘sport builds character’.

Simon’s struggle to be accepted raises questions about the kind of society we would like to build and the role within this society of the less able. Often enough we have accepted the truism that ‘a civilised society is judged upon how well it looks after its most vulnerable citizens’; but increasingly competitive and achievement-based social practice seem to question this principle.


There are thinkers who advocate an open, competitive society in which the interests of weaker and less able people are subordinated. This kind of society was referred to as far back as Thucydides, who commented, c. 416 BC: ‘In the discussion of human affairs the question of justice only enters where there is equal power to enforce it; the powerful exact what they can and the weak grant what they must’.

Social Darwinism

Much later, the biological theory of the ‘survival of the fittest’ led some thinkers to a kind of ‘Social Darwinism‘ which, taken to its logical end, results in what most people would regard as gravely immoral societies (for example, Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia). People in these societies who were judged undesirable were either eliminated or faced denial of even basic human rights.

Fortunately, most thinkers in the European tradition have taken a more humane view of the rights of all persons. If they are so inclined, the cricket club officials might examine a paper by Rory O’Brien about the development of civil society over the past two and a half millennia. They might then explore an important concept which emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries, namely the theory of the social contract, according to which members of society surrender some private rights in order to gain the benefits of living in an organised society.

Thinkers who were important in developing different aspects of this social contract idea were Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The Institute for the Study of Civic Values in Philadelphia presents a paper which raises issues about community building. While it is heavily American in its emphases, it would not be too difficult to apply to an Australian context. It makes many good points about community, identity and civic virtues.


  • Read the first two sports-related articles mentioned above. What comparisons can be made between how sports are organised and played and how society is organised and lived out? Draw some comparisons between Australian attitudes to sport and the way we see ourselves as a society.
  • Does sport really build character or, rather, release players from the everyday obligation to think of others?
  • Read some of the materials describing theories of society. How does a society form particular values? What causes these to evolve or change? Use the Compass Points thinking routine to help you critique some of the different ideas.
  • Is the idea of a social contract helpful in understanding how society works? What kind of ‘social contract’ may be worked out between the cricket club and Simon and his family?

Exploring Sacred Texts

St Paul

St Paul uses the image of the race as a metaphor for life, but otherwise the Christian scriptures are silent about sports. However, they are eloquent on matters of community. While Christianity is not bound to any particular social order, there are strong imperatives within New Testament teaching that point to a radical equality between Christians:

‘For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Ga 3:27–28). Jesus treats all he meets, male and female, with equal dignity, and is habitually seen sharing at table with all kinds of people, from Pharisees to tax-collectors and sinners, mixing with able and disabled alike.

The Early Church

The early communities of the Church were also characterised by mutual sharing (at least this is the ideal presented in Acts. Behaviour contrary to courtesy and consideration for others is angrily condemned by Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians. It is the whole community of disciples as well as the individual that is important. Some scholars such as Peter Leithart go so far as to claim that Paul’s ‘insistence that Jew and Greek share a common table was the symbolic founding of the Western city’.

Christian Scriptures

The Christian Scriptures have had a profound effect on the shape of Western civilisation, as a glance at an essay by Margaret Mitchell entitled ‘Social Teaching and History: Learning from the Early Church‘ shows. Within its own sacred texts, the Church is conceived as the people of God, the body of Christ, with obligations to care for, and treat with equal dignity, each part/person. The Scriptures have been, and remain, the basic source and critique of Christian social theory over two millennia.


  • Look up and read each of the extracts from the New Testament cited above, and formulate six principles of Christian ethical behaviour from them.
  • To what extent would you say Australian society is influenced by ethical principles derived from the Christian Scriptures?
  • Use the Compass Points thinking routine to examine Peter Leitharts claim that the apostle Paul’s ‘insistence that Jew and Greek share a common table was the symbolic founding of the Western city’.

Understanding the Catholic Tradition

St Augustine

One of early Christianity’s foremost thinkers was Augustine of Hippo (354–430). He wrote widely on all sorts of questions facing a society witnessing the decline of Greco-Roman civilisation and the emergence of a new and often frightening era. In his work, The City of God, he set out his interpretation of human society and human history. Read a simple account of Augustine’s purposes in writing The City of God (click on succeeding pages too), or a very fine but much longer and more difficult essay by James O’Donnell on Augustine’s thought in The City of God.

An interesting overview of the medieval view of the body, sport and physical education (adapted from lecture notes by Mechikoff & Estes, 1998) contains some big generalisations, but provides many launching points for further exploration.

Pope John Paul II

Check what Pope John Paul II had to say about sport and competition, and and the Pope’s words in an address to the disabled on the dignity of disabled persons and the need for society’s solidarity with them. An article by William Byron entitled ‘Ten Building Blocks of Catholic Social Teaching‘ is brief and accessible, and is a summary of the key principles of Catholic social teaching.

Catholic Social Teaching

Within the Catholic tradition, the concept of the common good is a paramount principle that ought to be understood. A Handbook of Catholic Social Teaching posted on a Jesuit College website also provides summary information about Catholic social teaching, as well as many topics for discussion.


  • St Augustine defined a community as ‘a group of people united by the common objects of their love’. Would this definition fit your school community? a sporting club? a national community? a religious group? a family? Discuss Augustine’s definition of community and formulate your own. Who/what does your definition include? Who/what does it exclude?
  • Use the Connect, Extend and Challenge thinking routine to reflect on either Augustine’s idea of community or the the medieval view of the human body.
  • Would looking at the William Byron’s description of the ten principles of Catholic social teaching help cricket club officials to come to a fair decision about Simon’s desire to play for the club? Or is it, in the end, a purely practical decision?

Respecting Other World Views

Many quotations from other faiths and world views concerning the ‘ethic of reciprocity’ and the Golden Rule – ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ – are listed on an ‘alternative religions’ page dedicated to religious tolerance.


  • Do other worldviews have anything extra to offer in resolving Simon’s difficulty?
  • Given the unanimity of the world religions and philosophical viewpoints on the Golden Rule, where does resistance to the idea of  ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’,  originate?

Examining Personal Experience

Simon’s family, though hurt and angry about what has happened to him at the club, might seriously confront the possibility that he may be badly injured in play, and the implications of this for his future and for them as his next of kin. It is also important for them to empathise with the anxiety of people bowling to Simon, and to address the issue of whether the other team ought to be informed of his difficulty.

The club members, meanwhile, might examine their motives and ensure that Simon is not being excluded merely because he is socially impaired. Reviewing their own personal experiences of exclusion and non-acceptance might sensitise them to Simon’s plight, and help them build a community club that is inclusive, truly sporting and truly communal. The club might then become one that plays, not only to win, but to make a small but significant contribution to the health of Australian society.


After going through the process with Simon’s family and members of the cricket club of establishing their response, identify and articulate your own.

  • Find out the facts.
  • Broaden your perspectives.
  • Explore the sacred texts.
  • Understand the tradition.
  • Consider other world views.
  • Review your personal experience.

Articulate your own response.