OPINION: The goal is inclusion, and good sportsmanship

OPINION: The goal is inclusion, and good sportsmanship

Special Olympics Team New Jersey Unified Soccer - Rowan University

Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed written by Rowan University senior Jonathan Pepper.

Unified Sports is more than a game. And now -- thanks to New Jersey's historic legislative move -- the message of Unified Sports, a program where athletes with and without disabilities play on the same team, will spread throughout the state.

On June 19, Gov. Christie signed legislation that will make it easier for disabled athletes to participate in school sports programs. The bill, sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), requires school districts to "ensure that a student with a disability has an equal opportunity to participate in physical education programs, participate in existing classroom activities that involve physical activity, and try out for and, if selected, participate in athletic programs."

This is an amazing initiative. Most people would agree with me, but not for all of the same reasons.

Most people will see this legislation as a wonderful step forward for students with intellectual disabilities. Yes, it is a tremendous opportunity for these athletes to play and grow. But the impact of the legislation, and of Unified Sports, goes much, much further.

How do I know? I'm a member of Team New Jersey and a Special Olympics gold medalist.

On the day that the governor signed the bill, I was on the field with my team showcasing what Unified Sports stands for. We were playing against Utah in a well-played nail-biter. After a scoreless game, it came down to penalty kicks -- and we won!

But an even greater victory followed.

After the game, Utah joined us in thanking the fans, chanting, "Play Unified. Live Unified." They even took a group picture with us.

Clearly, Unified is more than a game.

At Rowan University, I've spent two years playing Unified Sports (soccer and basketball), and I always run into the same misconception: People treat me as if I'm doing the disabled athletes a favor.

I'm always confronted with the sympathetic head tilt, puppy-dog eyes, and a soft "Awww"; when I tell anyone I play Unified. What people fail to see is the effect my teammates have on me.

I'm not criticizing people. I used to think the same way. In fact, I joined Unified Sports thinking it was a great way to offer my skills to help "the less fortunate." However, thanks to a lot of help from a few great people, my eyes have been opened. This isn't about helping them, though that's a part of the program. This is about inclusion. It's about being willing to help, but at the same time realizing how much others can help you.

During our weeklong journey to the Special Olympics USA Games, I relied on my teammates to help me along.

One day, we played two extremely tough games, starting with one against Utah (we played them twice during the USA Games). We were losing 1-0 and time was running out. I was getting very frustrated.

But any time I started to lose my cool, I just looked around. I saw Khary hustling, Brooke refusing to quit, and everyone else giving 100 percent. Not once did any of my teammates give up. Not once did they stop. More importantly, not once did they let their frustrations show or lose their sense of good sportsmanship.

With about one minute left, I took a shot that was blocked by the goalie. Without thinking, my first words were, "Good save, keeper." See? That's the attitude of my teammates, and it's infectious. That's the power of Unified.

And, of course, that power of Unified extends beyond the athletes and our team partners. It includes everyone who watches us play on the field, and it guides our actions off the field. We lead by example. Our motto -- "It's more than a game" -- represents the Unified movement. We use sports to promote social change -- and new legislation will help others throughout New Jersey join the movement.

Sports is a universal language, something we all understand. It allows us to overlook our differences and work together as a team.

If we can do it on the field, why can't everyone do it off the field? Our similarities outweigh our differences, and we can all live in an inclusive world if we choose to. That is the biggest lesson we can all learn from Unified.

Jon Pepper is a senior studying public relations at Rowan University.