IT WASN'T hard to
spot a Steve Fleming--coached team. In the world of the Special Olympics—which
wrapped up their Summer World Games in China last week—effort and sportsmanship
are considered more important than winning or looking good. But Fleming's
basketball, golf and soccer teams rarely lost and always looked sharp, no
mismatched T-shirts or goofy-looking shorts. "Don't tell me that
special-needs kids don't realize what they're wearing," Fleming was fond of
basketball practices were not typical Special Olympics fare either, given the
suicide drills and trash-talking. "Don't bring that mess in here,"
Fleming, 46, a Marine and the father of a 16-year-old mentally challenged son
(below, in red), would shout if he blocked a player's shot during a scrimmage.
His athletes talked smack right back. "We were like, 'We can't be
touched,'" says Tony Moore, 18, who played guard for Fleming's hoops team
in Lewisville, a Dallas suburb. "Coach built our confidence, got us to do
things we didn't think we could. The other teams didn't know what hit
Neither did some
parents in Lewisville's Special Olympics delegation, which is one reason
Fleming is now an ex-coach. His techniques made him a polarizing figure, even
as he won a state basketball title in 2005. "Our kids have a hard enough
time being accepted by society," says Peggy Smith, whose daughter competes
for Lewisville. "If you take a child who's disabled and teach him to
trash-talk, how is that going to help that child live in the real world?"
Vicki Griffin, another Lewisville delegation parent, says Fleming would be
better coaching kids who aren't disabled. "A Special Olympics coach has
never made my son cry, but he managed to do that," she said. "Some
parents just can't accept that their child isn't going to be normal, no matter
what kind of fancy uniforms you dress them in."
In 2006 Fleming
left the Lewisville delegation and started his own, the Flower Mound Mustangs,
in a nearby town. The two groups began bickering—Fleming was accused of
recruiting Lewisville athletes—and in December 2006 both were put on probation
by Special Olympics Texas. In July of this year the organization suspended
Fleming for a year for, spokeswoman Kelly Coffey told The Dallas Morning News,
"continued improper conduct of delegation leadership and inability to
follow policies and procedures of the organization."
The spat reflects
a larger disagreement among the parents of special-needs children: Should those
kids—in a classroom or on a basketball court—be treated as if they're special
or as if they're normal? "Some parents see their children as significantly
unlike typical developing kids, and they want them protected and supported in
specific ways," says David Chard, the dean of the SMU school of education.
"Other parents believe the best way to support their children is to give
them as many normative experiences as possible. In Steve's case, that
apparently includes trash-talking."
loved the way Fleming challenged their kids, saying he raised the bar for what
can be expected of them. "He treated them like they were real
athletes," says Carolyn Sczepanski, whose son has Down syndrome and has
participated in the Special Olympics for 13 years. "And they loved it! For
some of these kids, learning a play was the biggest accomplishment of their
hopes to return to coaching disabled athletes, can't believe he's been banned
from an organization he thinks could use more coaches like himself. "I
figured I would be embraced by Texas Special Olympics," he says. "I
taught them to hold their heads high, to have confidence in themselves and to
never stop pushing themselves. If I die tomorrow, I know I helped these