Paralympic Games

Students in Clemson’s new soccer residency program will enjoy years of consistent training that they might otherwise miss in higher education elsewhere.
Image Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Sean M. Worrell

CLEMSON — Clemson University is initiating a new tuition-assistance program that will attract incoming student athletes with neurological impairments who want to continue playing soccer during their collegiate careers.

The program will provide two out-of-state tuition waivers per year for four years to select students with impairments including cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and stroke.

The waivers beginning in fall 2017 will ease the monetary burden of higher education and get athletes more consistent training time on the field with other athletes with disabilities. The program was initiated by Skye Arthur-Banning, associate professor in Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism management department. He said a program like this can deliver an option that simply didn’t exist for players who feel like they were held back by their disabilities.

“Players with cerebral palsy generally play until they are 12 or 13 years old before their disability holds them back among other non-disabled players,” Arthur-Banning said. “Instead of the former reality of dropping out or down in divisions, this scholarship opportunity and a future in Paralympic soccer is something they can continue to strive for.”

Arthur-Banning’s previous research suggests cost and distance are the two biggest obstacles to continued training for athletes with disabilities. Even players who could afford to travel long distances for a one-week camp each month would be forced to spend three weeks going without quality training time at their home institutions.

The Clemson program will see these 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.

While a program like this would be a first for soccer, it is not unprecedented in Paralympic sports. In 2005, the U.S. Olympic Committee designated the University of Central Oklahoma as an official U.S. Paralympic Training Site for the men’s national sitting volleyball team and later for the women’s team. In 2014, the committee designated the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a training site due to achievements in its track and field wheelchair program.

Arthur-Banning originally took the idea for tuition waivers to Chuck Knepfle, who then was Clemson’s director of financial aid and who now is associate vice president for enrollment management. Knepfle said he was immediately attracted to a program that would simultaneously align with Clemson’s diversity initiatives and its world-class athletics programs.

“What primarily attracted me was a faculty member finding a creative way to bring diversity to our university,” Knepfle said. “A program like this positions Clemson as a destination for student athletes with disabilities, and I think all of our students have a better experience when they’re exposed to as many different groups as possible.”

The program is a dream come true for Stuart Sharp, head coach of U.S. Soccer’s Paralympic National Team. The national team will donate equipment to the university, Sharp will serve as an adviser for the program and both he and Arthur-Banning will work with the program’s appointed graduate assistant as the it develops.

Sharp said current recruitment for the national team relies on word of mouth, presentations and outreach via social media. The prospect of having a pipeline of players coming from a university program is attractive both for the future of Sharp’s team and for the sport in general across the nation.

“Right now recruitment is like finding a needle in a haystack without knowing what the haystack looks like,” Sharp said. “Investing in development so that young people with a qualifying disability have access to soccer is key to growing the entire sport, not just finding elite-level players for the national team.”

When Sharp discusses the team, he speaks just as much about the 10-year-old athlete as he does about the college-age athlete that might show potential for the national team. He wants children with disabilities to see soccer as a viable option, but even if they shoot for a scholarship and miss, they will still benefit from regular activity and the positive aspects of team sport they might have otherwise never pursued.

Sharp and Arthur-Banning want the Clemson residency program to the be first but not only program of its kind, as creating a competitive structure between schools is the all-important next step. If similar programs in Illinois and Oklahoma are any indication, the road to training site designation is not short or easy, but Sharp and Arthur-Banning are thinking big and long-term.

“People can tell me not to get ahead of myself, but I say realistic goals can also be audacious,” Sharp said. “Having other schools create similar programs that will allow for a truly competitive structure won’t happen overnight, but we have to start somewhere and strive for it if there will ever be true development in the sport.”