Hard to believe, but Robert “Beau” Doherty ’78 is not always Mr. Nice Guy. When he was a bouncer in a bar in Taunton, Mass., back in the ’70s, he was in the middle of a brawl and helped save the boss’s life after he’d been stabbed. Not long after the incident, when Beau came into the bar with some of his clients, regulars told him, in crude terms, to get out and take his pals with him.
Back then, Beau’s clients were not welcome at the local bar. They weren’t welcome at other local establishments either. Beau tried to change that. “We had a good family name in Taunton at the time and it finally helped.”
Today Beau’s clients are called athletes. They compete in a worldwide sports program called Special Olympics. And because of Unity graduate Beau Doherty, who is president of Special Olympics for the state of Connecticut, they are part of a half-million-person movement called Unified Sports, an inclusive sports program that brings an equal number of athletes and partners (individuals without intellectual disability) on teams for training and competition.
It started for Beau when he was a junior at Unity. He was offered two very different summer jobs: one working for a fisheries biologist, one working at the Paul A. Dever State School in Taunton.
“I arrived at the school and I had all these people hugging me,” he said. “They were going to give me all this money to start an outdoor recreation program.” He took it.
In those days, there wasn’t much to do for recreation at Dever. Friday was the big dance night. But men had to dance with men and women with women. According to Beau, it was all very old-style, very institutionalized.
“I was going to shake it up a little bit,” he said.
After he graduated from Unity, Beau returned to Dever and began his life-long career working with people with intellectual disabilities. The school created a recreation position to take advantage of Beau’s knowledge of the outdoors and serve as Head Coach of Special Olympics. It was here that he started mixing college volunteers on teams of athletes. Within a few years, Special Olympics Massachusetts and the Department of Developmental Services did a deal to have Beau become the Training Director and oversee coaches training in Massachusetts. Almost at once, Beau again showed his not-Mr.-Nice-Guy side.
He started by banning the huggers.
“In the early days, Special Olympics was just a feel-good field day.” Athletes would slow up at the finish line because of the huggers — well-meaning supporters — who were there to congratulate them. “I got them off the finish line.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, Beau insisted that coaches coach. “We went to Worcester for an event. I made them play by the rules. I told them a month before the event that I would enforce the rule that you cannot impede another runner and if you did you were disqualified. The parents were all yelling at me after the fifth disqualification. Everyone was mad at me.”
That’s when the coaches — up to then not much more than cheerleaders — realized they’d have to actually coach if they didn’t want to see their whole squad disqualified. “At lunch the coaches were coaching their athletes to stay within the lanes.”
This caught the eye of Special Olympics founder Eunice Shriver. There were complaints about Beau’s and other Massachusetts staff’s approach and it was up to Mrs. Shriver’s staff to adjudicate. According to Beau, on one side was the field day institutional faction. They wanted games without consequence or results. On the other side were Beau and about 60 percent of the staff around the world. It was Mrs. Shriver’s decision and she made it decisively. “I did not start this to be a field day,” she told everyone at a meeting in Vermont. And she meant it. According to Beau, a lot of people lost their jobs in the next two years. Special Olympics got serious.
It was a couple of years later when Beau came up with a change he had wanted for years. This time Mrs. Shriver wasn’t so convinced. It came out of something he observed when he integrated non-disabled people on teams. “The non-disabled folks became closer and more social when they became participants instead of coaches.”
In 1982, Beau met with Mrs. Shriver in Utah to ask permission to play integrated softball in Massachusetts. Why in the world, she asked him, would he do that. “I started this program to put our athletes in the limelight.”
Beau stuck to his guns. “I told her that we, as an organization, will be outdated if we don’t change. She was annoyed. ‘How can you prove this,’ she asked, ‘what about domination?’”
But she let him try and provided a researcher from Harvard University to witness the first game. One year later in the recap meeting at her house in Virginia she told Beau, “You’re lucky you’re from Massachusetts.”
One rule she laid down for Beau and her staff: “You have to do this so that our athletes won’t be out of the limelight and you have to ensure domination by partners does not happen.” In 1989, after years of research in six states, Mrs. Shriver at an international meeting with Beau at her side, endorsed Unified Sports.
Fast forward to January 2013. That’s when Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, announced that the country must provide equal opportunity in sports to students with disabilities. He said, in part, “Playing sports at any level — club, intramural, or interscholastic — can be a key part of the school experience and have an immense and lasting impact on a student’s life … Students with disabilities are no different. Like their peers without disabilities, these students benefit from participating in sports. But, unfortunately, we know that students with disabilities are all too often denied the chance to participate and with it, the respect that comes with inclusion. This is simply wrong. While it’s the coach’s job to pick the best team, students with disabilities must be judged based on their individual abilities, and not excluded because of generalizations, assumptions, prejudices or stereotypes. Knowledgeable adults create the possibilities of participation among children and youth both with and without disabilities.”
Since the DOE statement there are now over 20 Special Olympic Programs in the U.S. partnering with the Interscholastic Sports Program to do Unified Sports together. Luckily there already exists a great model for success: Unified Sports conceived and delivered by Unity College’s Beau Doherty and aligned with the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference for the past 22 years where high school athletes and partners receive letters like everyone else.
Does it work? Ask Arizona Diamondbacks’ A.J. Pollock, an outfielder who played Unified Sports in high school. “What people need to understand about people with special needs is they just want to be treated like everyone else. It’s not just about the athletic events.”
Or maybe it’s always about the athletic events. According to Tim Shriver, Chairman of Special Olympics, “Beau has been the world’s pied piper for the Special Olympics Unified Sports movement. Before anyone else, he realized that unified sports could transform relationships on the sports field, in communities, in schools, in places of business in ways that nothing else could. Beau understood that when we create sports experiences that are about equals we unlock the most powerful dimensions of the Special Olympics experience: Transforming pity and exclusion into respect and unity.”