BRIGHTON, Mich. (BVM) — High school sports are about athletes developing skills within the game they’re playing in a competitive environment. But sometimes, not everyone gets that chance. The Kensington Lakes Activities Association (KLAA) is one of many leagues around the country that is trying to change that through unified sports.
In 2018, the KLAA formed their Unified Sports League which brings special education students together with general education students to form a team and compete against other schools. With four teams the first year, the league continues to grow and now consists of up to 13 teams.
While basketball is the featured game of the league, multiple sports are played throughout the year. In the fall, a smaller number of schools compete in flag football, and bocce ball is another sport run by the league in the spring.
For basketball, the game is played with three special education students on the court alongside two general education students. The general education students don’t do a lot of dribbling or shooting, but they instead help facilitate and put the special education students in the right spots on the court to succeed. Teams can range from a typical basketball squad of 10-12 kids, while others schools might have multiple teams with 50 or more kids participating in the program.
Brighton High School is one of the schools that competes in the league, and 15-year athletic director John Thompson is one of the main forces behind this league developing. Brighton got involved with the unified sports movement shortly before some of the other schools in the league, and they were even recognized by ESPN for their involvement with special olympics.
“That was pretty cool, you don’t get ESPN showing up on your campus everyday,” Thompson said.
But it was at a session about unified sports at an athletic directors conference that Thompson and Novi athletic director Brian Gordon decided to create a league out of it. While unified sports had been around, league play like the KLAA created really had not been seen yet.
“In terms of running it as a league, Kensington Lakes Activities Association was really the first entity to do that as an athletic league or conference of schools,” Thompson said.
The league has progressed over its three years of existence, and this February the KLAA held a basketball tournament as well. The tournament had 10 teams who played over 40 combined games from pool play to bracket play. All the students who participated received medals from Special Olympics Michigan and the KLAA.
Although it’s just a sports league, the idea of KLAA’s Unified Sports League means so much more than the X’s and O’s on the court or field.
“The common goal is to spread the message about inclusion and respect of all people concerned,” Thompson stated.
The league is also more about changing the culture at the schools involved over anything else.
“I think that’s probably one of the most powerful elements of this program, it really does change the school’s culture. It brings people together whether it’s with regard to disability, race, religion, or ethnicity…at the end of the day the message is we’re all just people. This is something where we can come together and respect everybody for who they are,” Thompson added.
General education students have absolutely embraced the KLAA Unified Sports League, with many getting involved in the games.
“We literally have more kids than we have spots for,” Thompson said.
You don’t have to be an athlete to get involved either, it can be any student that just wants to help out, enjoy themselves, and see a pure form of sport.
Meanwhile, for the special needs students, the league means everything.
“If you want to see a smile, come out to the Unified Sports League,” Thompson said. “The kids feel a sense of belonging and they feel a sense that they are part of their school and community. Really that’s what it’s all about.”
As the league continues to grow, Thompson among others hopes it can continue to spread further across Michigan. The Brighton AD has helped bring together Special Olympics Michigan with the Michigan Athletics High School Association in order to do so.
“I think you’re only going to continue to see it grow and build steam. And my gosh, the return is so wonderful that you’d be foolish not to embrace it,” Thompson said.
And for any school who might be on the fence about unified sports, Thompson has three words for them:
“Just do it,” he stressed. “The rewards for not only the kids involved, but also the ability to change the culture in your building is very powerful.”
Thompson says that Special Olympics Michigan is a huge help in being able to get these kinds of programs started, and also notes that he and his other colleagues in the KLAA would be happy to help districts or schools that want to become involved with unified sports.
When asked how far he thinks it can grow, Thompson believes it could eventually be a part of each of the near 700 school districts in Michigan.
“I would not be surprised to see in one way shape, form or another, in five or ten years from now, that type of a dynamic,” he claimed.
The model for a unified sports league the KLAA has set is nothing short of spectacular and hopefully will be followed by many in years to come. In a society where sometimes high school sports are taken too competitively, a league like this is a breath of fresh air.
“Yeah it’s about sport, but it’s really about people. It is the purest sense of sport that I think I have ever seen in my life,” Thompson concluded.