More than ever, college athletes speaking out against R-word

Kendall Cooper was shown a list of hateful words and derogatory phrases for Duke's "You Don't Say" campaign last winter and asked if any of them spoke to her.

One jumped out immediately. And recognizing her influence as one of the university's top athletes, the Blue Devils basketball player joined a growing legion of young people speaking out against what is now commonly referred to as the "R-word."

"No one deserves to be picked on," said Cooper, who was part of Duke's NCAA Tournament squad this past season. "And I realized how much power we can have as athletes to do something about it."

For Cooper, the word "retarded" and its slang "retard" brought back painful memories of school bullies picking on her younger brother for a speech impediment when the two were children. Now the words seem archaic. And indeed, eradicated from the language of Special Olympics, viewed as outdated in the medical community, and removed in 2010 from all official use with the federal government's passage of a bill replacing "mental retardation" with "intellectual disability," it is seemingly an old issue.

But the R-word still pops up and more often than some might think -- on social media, in movies and even by educated people and in everyday conversation. The difference is that unlike 10 years ago, when Cooper's brother was first victimized, there are generally consequences involved and, at the very least, an audible outcry from people around the country who don't need organizations like the Special Olympics to back them up.

Rather, the pushback is now coming from a growing number of kids, young adults and athletes like Cooper trying to re-educate their generation and others.

"From studies we see, adults hardly even count in addressing bullying behavior," said Andrea Cahn, national senior director for Project UNIFY, which joins intellectually disabled and non-disabled athletes on the same teams. "It's really about social networks among kids, sub-cultures, their friendships and alliances that have an impact."

The R-word campaign officially began with "Spread the Word to End the Word," co-founded in 2008 with a website created by then-college students Soeren Palumbo and Timbo Shriver, son of Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver. Soon after, there was an annual day of awareness to stop using the R-word.

"Timbo and I consider ourselves co-founders along with tens of thousands of people who have made it happen in their schools and communities," said Palumbo, now 26 and a management consultant and licensed attorney in the Chicago area. "We put a catchy name to it, but hundreds of thousands of local champions at hundreds of colleges and high schools and middle schools have taken the initiative to change their own school. We just provided a platform."

Athletes have had a notable role.

The Duke online campaign, which relied on the participation of 41 student-athletes, went viral last year with its goal to raise student awareness about the offensive nature of phrases and slurs used in everyday conversation.

Haylie Bernacki, a Special Olympics specialist in Unified Sports school and college growth, said roughly 400 U.S. colleges and universities host an annual R-word event on campus, many through a national partnership between the Special Olympics and NCAA Div. III schools.

Over the lifetime of the campaign, she estimated that about 30,000 student-athletes from all NCAA division schools have signed the pledge. It is no accident.

"The moment we set out to do 'Spread the Word,' we knew it would be a grassroots and viral campaign dependent on so many local champions affecting their own sphere of influence," Palumbo said. "Timbo and I knew we couldn't walk into [a local] high school and change it. We knew we needed someone to help us and ... in our culture, athletes have a very high level of influence. So when they speak out or take a stand on an issue, it's something that gets noticed."

As an undergrad at Notre Dame and the founder of its Special Olympics group, Palumbo said he received "fantastic support" from then-football coach Charlie Weis, who has a daughter with intellectual disabilities and involved his team in the "Spread the Word" campaign.

"And in one fell swoop," Palumbo said, "we got some of the most influential people on campus involved. When you can convert or involve people like that, your message spreads quickly and it spreads very powerfully."

Last year, as an offshoot of the Egg Bowl between rivals Mississippi and Mississippi State, Special Olympics Mississippi brought the state together with the Special Olympics Unified Egg Bowl flag football game. Mississippi athletic director Ross Bjork and his Mississippi State counterpart, Scott Stricklin, also did public service announcements urging their school's student-athletes to sign the pledge to stop using the R-word.

Sometimes an athlete's influence is unseen but just as powerful, as was experienced by Jason Gieschen, a Special Olympics athlete and now global messenger who said he was frequently subjected to the R-word as a child.

"Honestly, the scars still remain, it still hurts. I still think about it sometimes even though I tell myself to stop, the past is the past," said Gieschen, now 30.

One way he has always coped, Gieschen said, is that whenever he came home from a bad day at school, he would go to his room and look at his Shaquille O'Neal shoe collection.

"I actually have his rookie shoes," Gieschen said. "Then I got one a year or two later when he went up to [size] 22 and then when he was in the NBA Finals with the Miami Heat, and he signed them."

Sports is a natural catalyst for everything that benefits Special Olympics, Cahn said, and its Unified Sports program is a good starting point.

Cahn said Unified "co-opted" the "Spread the Word" campaign as one of its strategies in developing programs in schools "because it resonated so deeply with young people," she said.

"The message behind it in schools are that the [Special Olympics] athletes are cool to hang out with, there's nothing wrong with them and we are not using [derogatory] language [like the R-word] to describe them."

Around the country, the message has resonated. In Great Falls, Montana, soon after "Spread the Word" began, two high school students offered free T-shirts to classmates who would sign a pledge to stop using the word. The T-shirts were gone in an hour and the following year, Samantha McLeod and Tanealya Hueth "took over downtown and rallied for respect where everyone could see us," McLeod wrote this spring in a blog for the Huffington Post.

"Cars honked, people stopped and the crowd chanted; not after long the news stations showed up, and then the newspaper; it was like something you would see in a movie. We had hundreds of community members rally beside us to take the pledge," she wrote.

A year later, Special Olympics athletes from their school were recognized by the athletic department and were able to earn the same varsity letters as other student-athletes.

And while college athletes have taken part in public service announcements for "Spread the Word," the movement has also gained publicized support from professional athletes, such as LeBron James and Joe Flacco, after they regretfully used the word.

Though some advocates wish that along with the apologies come an explanation of why it's a bad word choice, the apologies in themselves signal progress. Palumbo said when he and Shriver started the "Spread the Word" website, there was "a lot of advocacy" at the time, "but it sought to scold rather than to teach.

"What we wanted to do was not to censor people or even tell them not to use the word but rather, 'Let us share with you the impact of this word when you use it and you make the choice yourself,'" he said.

For Cooper, whose brother is not intellectually disabled, the word had a scarring effect for both of them.

"My brother was always the shorter one and, for lack of a better term, the weaker one," she said. "Before he got picked on, he didn't have a speech impediment. But he came home crying one day when he was 5 or 6 and he couldn't get the words out, he started stuttering. ... He's 16 now and when he gets upset or frustrated, it still becomes really, really bad."

Cooper said she does not hesitate now to correct those who use the word, even her friends.

"I had a friend use it with me [recently] and I just said, 'Can you find another word?'"