Clemson faculty member’s love of academia, officiating converge in adaptive sports
Skye Arthur-Banning can trace a watershed moment in his career as faculty member and soccer referee to a set of shoe laces. They were on a pair of cleats that belonged to a player with cerebral palsy competing in the 2014 America’s Cup Tournament.
It was Arthur-Banning’s first time officiating a seven-a-side soccer game, a modified version of the sport for athletes with disabilities. He didn’t have much time to prepare, and just before the game a player jogged up to him with the laces of one cleat bouncing wildly around his foot. The laces had come untied, and he asked Arthur-Banning to take care of the situation.
“I was really confused and caught off guard,” Arthur-Banning said. “I used to referee pro games and that was just not a request I ever got. I looked at the assistant ref to make sure I wasn’t being pranked, and he just motioned to tie the laces, so I did it.”
Arthur-Banning later learned it’s just part of the game for players with cerebral palsy who often take longer to tie their laces because of physical impairments. It’s a way to keep the game moving along quickly, but it’s also a sign of respect between referee and player. To hear him talk about it, that isolated incident is what hooked him.
The passion Arthur-Banning has for adaptive sports and its players has only grown since he bent down to tie those laces. For him, what he has achieved in a short amount of time is the perfect blend of a cherished past time and his preferred academic and research endeavors at Clemson. For the sport, it’s valuable advocacy that has the potential to have a lasting impact.
Arthur-Banning’s history as a soccer referee predates his 2005 arrival in Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department, but he had slowed his role as a semi-professional soccer referee in order to spend more time with his wife and young children. It was a fateful trip to the Paralympic Games in 2012 that inspired him to reach out to U.S. Soccer to get his name out there as a possible referee for Paralympic soccer.
After the America’s Cup Tournament, he was appointed to the International Federation for Cerebral Palsy Football as an official. He sought to grow the federation, so he quickly pitched his ideas to professionalize and grow it to then Federation President Sandy Hermiston. Hermiston liked what she heard, and soon after the federation named Arthur-Banning the head of its officials.
Arthur-Banning shakes his head and smiles when he stops to think about how quickly it all happened.
“I was head of the federation less than a year and a half after learning it existed,” he said. “Still hard to believe.”
Through his work as an official, Arthur-Banning established a close working relationship with Stuart Sharp, head coach of the U.S. Paralympic Soccer team. The more they discussed the future of the sport, the more Arthur-Banning began to believe he could impact it through his work not only as an official, but as Clemson faculty.
In 2015, Arthur-Banning and Ph.D. student-turned faculty member Brandi Crowe traveled to the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California to talk to players about the barriers they faced in competing and practicing. Several of these Paralympic athletes were military veterans, so in addition to getting a clearer picture of what Paralympic athletes needed to succeed in the sport, Arthur-Banning also saw the general interest from veteran populations.
After that trip, things moved fast.
Arthur-Banning secured funding from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to develop and educate veterans with disabilities as player-coaches who could then return home to assemble and coach teams of veterans. The $52,000 awarded by the grant represented the only money given in 2016 to specifically fund Paralympic soccer by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Arthur-Banning stayed in touch with the six coaches involved to gauge their progress, and he assembled a group of Clemson students to engage in a Creative Inquiry undergraduate research project related to the coaches’ experience. The project focused on community recreation and gauged the effects the training and coaching development have on player self-esteem.
The Creative Inquiry is a continuing research project that has been so successful Arthur-Banning has had to open a second section to accommodate the student interest.
“Our students gauge how much of an effect this experience has on these veterans,” Arthur-Banning said. “We’ve seen that we can grow Paralympic soccer in communities and have a positive effect on veterans who have given so much.”
Arthur-Banning also pitched a tuition assistance program to Clemson leadership that would provide two out-of-state tuition waivers per year for four years (for eight total athletes) to select students with impairments including cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and stroke. In fall 2017, it became a reality.
The program addresses the concerns Arthur-Banning heard from athletes in Chula Vista, namely access to practice time that doesn’t force players to sacrifice an academic program for sports or vice versa. The program sees athletes attend class and experience regular training on site with other players throughout each semester.
The ultimate goal is lofty but within reach: for Clemson University to become the first soccer-specific Paralympic training site designated by the U.S. Olympic committee. That site would attract athletes on scholarship, those who can afford out-of-state tuition and those on GI bills who don’t have to rely on tuition waivers.
University leadership funded the program because it aligns with Clemson’s diversity initiatives and its world-class athletics program. For Sharp, the program is a dream come true. He serves as an advisor for the program and hopes other schools might eventually model their programs on Clemson’s.
“Investing in development so that young people have access to soccer is the key to growing the entire sport,” Sharp said. “We want children with disabilities to see soccer as a viable option.”
Arthur-Banning is now a faculty fellow in the Robert H. Brooks Sports Science Institute, and his reputation for growing adaptive sports programs hasn’t gone unnoticed. In early 2017, Clemson was chosen by the U.S. Department of State as a mentor sight for Egypt-based Cardinal Sports. The organization’s coach, Ali Abou El Nasr, visited Clemson and met with Arthur-Banning and other faculty on a fact-finding mission to build the sport for visually impaired players in his country.
Clemson continues to welcome a growing number of veterans to its soccer leadership camps each semester so it can churn out the adaptive sport coaches of the future. Clemson also welcomed the first students in its tuition assistance program—dubbed the Clemson University Paralympic Soccer (CUPS) program—in fall 2017, along with a graduate student who serves as program coordinator.
All the while, Arthur-Banning is engaging with potential students in the program as well as potential sponsors and partners to help grow the sport in this area and, eventually, across the country.
“So much has happened since I tied those shoe laces, but I invite it all because it’s where my career interests have blended with a hobby that I’m truly passionate about,” Arthur-Banning said. “The fact that there are now so many elements of Clemson involved just makes it that much better.”