The Problem with “Inspirational Sport Stories”

Feb 29, 2016
Tagged with: The Problem with “Inspirational Sport Stories”


Recently I have been absolutely swamped with school, work, and basketball, which has left little time for writing extra things such as this post. That is especially true since I want what I write to be something worth reading and I really want a topic that either makes you think or, better yet, starts a discussion either in the comments below or on social media. I think I have just the ticket and it helps that I have a bunch to say about this issue and its impact on individuals with disabilities!

I am sure the majority of you have heard of “inspiration porn,” but, if you have not, here is how the late Stella Young described inspiration porn: “an image of a person with a disability, often a kid, doing something completely ordinary – like playing, or talking, or running, or drawing a picture, or hitting a tennis ball – carrying a caption like “your excuse is invalid” or “before you quit, try”” (Young, S. 2012). A spin-off of your typical inspiration porn is the “inspirational sports story”.

You know the stories I am talking about. The headlines read, “Undefeated wrestler’s first loss is dream win for opponent with Down syndrome,” “Boy with CP scores touchdown,” or “Team manager with autism, plays in basketball game & scores.” More often than not, these stories involve opponents not playing defense or letting the person with a disability score or win. Society then paints these instances as good sportsmanship and the participants being great people, or teaching kids, “The real life lessons we should be instilling in our youth and in sports.”

I, on the other hand, cringe every time one of these stories floats across my Twitter feed, Facebook, or airs on ESPN.

Now, I know you are thinking, “Why the heck to do you dislike such great moments?!” “You’re mean-spirited!” Hear me out. These stories, like the typical form of inspiration porn, gain their fame and notoriety so that non-disabled people can feel better about themselves. So they can go, “Gee, look at that person with a disability. They look so happy scoring that basket/goal/touchdown. They take such joy from the simplest things. I should too,” or, “Look at how excited that person with a disability is. I caused that to happen; therefore, I am such a great person doing good things for others!” Additionally, I question these stories because of the message these moments send about people with disabilities and what they can accomplish.

I am obviously happy for the individuals and am all for making someone’s life happier and I understand the reasoning behind these moments. However, while I am sure it is unintentional, the subtle message pushed by these moments is that people with disabilities should be treated different and that they are not able to do things unless you remove every obstacle and basically give it to them. This marks them as needy, frail, and incapable of independent success. In addition to being a horrible message to send to society, this is a horrible message to send to individuals with disabilities too. Society is saying that, “You are disabled; therefore, not only are you unable to do things and are dependent upon society (this includes parents, teachers etc.) for help but that society will always be there to aid you and you don’t have to lift a finger in order to accomplish something”. This contradicts one of the best lessons athletic participation teaches: that effort and hard work are necessary for success. This mindset can extend beyond sports and has consequences. Too many times fully capable individuals with disabilities are given a free pass in academics and other aspects of life and, thus, they never reach their full potential.

There are stories that I do enjoy. For example, Kayla Montgomery, a long-distance runner diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when she was just 14. Due to her MS, Kayla loses feeling in her legs while running and, ultimately, collapses once she stops. Despite her diagnosis (and some say because of it), Kayla set multiple state records and won multiple state championships while in high school and now runs for Libscomb University. Anthony Robles, a single amputee, won the 2011 NCAA Division I Wrestling championship. More recently, there is the story of Florida Men’s Basketball player, Zach Hodskins. Hodskins, who enjoyed a decorated high school career, was named MVP of elite basketball camps, and earned a preferred walk-on spot from then Florida coach Billy Donovan, was born without a left hand. On December 23, 2015, Hodskins scored in a game against Jacksonville. Jacksonville played him straight up, and when he drove the lane for a spinning layup (which he made), they fouled him in an effort to stop him from scoring.

These stories involve individuals with disabilities competing alongside and just like their able-bodied peers. These athletes did not win every time, in fact they lost quite often. They were not given anything. They EARNED their success and their results through athletic talent, hard work, and determination.

I want this piece to spark a discussion regarding the message that we as a society and the media send about athletes with disabilities. Think about it and let me hear your thoughts in the comments below or on social media (@PhillipCWDE on Twitter or Phillip Crain on Facebook)!



Young, S. 2012. We’re not here for your inspiration.                                                                          

Kayla Montgomery:

E60: “Catching Kayla”            FsKLA6A&list=PLDOCKTyBvci_QVzxYRzXnvMSv_7XeRyNI&index=1

Morley, G. & Cohen, L. 2015. Kayla Montgomery: Young runner’s brave battle with MS. CNN.            -feat/

Zach Hodskins:

Beiler, D. 2015. One-handed walk-on Zach Hodskins scores first basket for Florida. New York                 Times.       -walk-on-zach-hodskins-scores-first-basket-for-florida/

Doyel, G. 2013. Zach Hodskins is a great basketball player; also, he has one hand. CBS Sports.                  -great-basketball-player-also-he-has-one-hand

Author: Phillip Crain

  • bobl07

    Outstanding topic Phillip! My thoughts are that while it is good to see with people with disabilities on t.v. that majority of the media reporting doesn’t seem to get the point that there are many people with disabilities that are rivaling what athletes without disabilities do. There is a hardly very little coverage on Tatiyana McFaddon, Josh George, and Alana Nichols who are probably the best athletes at this time. Very rarely do you see them covered on Sports Center. At the end of the day media is so powerful on shaping the mindset of a culture, I only hope that NBC’s coverage of the Paralympics is done with the same integrity of the Olympics.

  • Phillip

    Thanks! The media’s impact on public perception is unquestionable. Like you, I hope that NBC’s coverage of the Paralympics is done well. I feel as though they have improved in recent years at actually covering the sports aspect of the games. I suspect that the increased hours of coverage has helped with this and can only hope they continue to taking steps forward!

  • bobl07

    What will be interesting is how it will be worded when advertised: “Come and Watch people with disabilities compete” or “Come and watch the best of the Paralympic Athletes that represent team USA!”