UNL's Unified Sports trophy case at the campus recreation center.
UNL's Unified Sports trophy case at the campus recreation center

Nebraska has won national championship in football far more recently than most fans remember.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Unified flag football team earned its second consecutive national title on Jan. 8 and traveled to Texas over winter break to do so. Although it may not be covered extensively, Special Olympics Unified Sports have found a home in Nebraska and have grown rapidly over the last decade. At both the college and high school level, Unified Sports have been a success on and off the field of play in the Cornhusker state.

Unified Sports’ mission is simple: promoting inclusion and understanding through the lens of sport. Unified joins students with (unified athletes) and without (unified partners) intellectual disabilities on the same team, competing against teams from other schools. According to the Nebraska School Activities Association, these programs highlight similarities between these students, rather than accentuating differences, leading to strengthened and deeper relationships.

 Special Olympics started the Unified Sports program in 1989 and has experienced exponential growth over the last 34 years. Participation numbers have spiked over the last three years. As of November, there are a combined 55,598 unified participants, marking a 163% increase since 2019.

The connection built between unified partners and unified athletes is a huge factor in the growth of the program throughout the state of Nebraska.

“I think that you get to build a really special connection and you get to know and work with people who you may have never met otherwise,” said Ashton Sandman, a four-year unified partner at UNL. “When I was a student at Millard West, I had no idea this was an option, but even looking at it there now, it’s gotten way more popular over the past few years.”

A common misconception among those unfamiliar with Unified Sports is that unified partners will ‘take it easy’ during competition. According to Sandman, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

“You have to be competitive, because half the time, I’m worse than the athletes anyway,” Sandman said. “They’re really good and if you’re not trying, you won’t have a chance in the first place.”

One high school partner found that doing Unified track and field helped them to “learn to be more patient, because some people need more patience than others, and being okay with that is a really important lesson.”

The value the program can provide to unified athletes is seen in a variety of ways. According to a Special Olympics study, 82% of parents of Unified Athletes reported higher self-esteem and confidence in their children after joining a Unified Sports team. There are physical benefits as well, as NSAA makes a point of the value of providing a way to improve health and fitness, especially for students with disabilities, who may face higher risks associated with those factors. The partnership with NSAA allows Unified Sports in Nebraska to be considered varsity competitions. According to NSAA, not every student has a chance to be on a varsity team, but Unified Sports allows those students to participate and make an impact in meaningful competitions and activities.

NSAA asserts that the positive impacts don’t end at the people involved directly with the teams at each high school. The entire community at Unified Sports schools benefit from the enhanced social inclusion, promoting respect, diversity and acceptance.

One UNL unified athlete said that being able to be a key piece of a team in competition, first in high school and now at the college level is “one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.”

In 2022, 19 schools in the state were named Banner Unified Champion Schools, the most new Champion schools of any state in the country. These schools are chosen by application and by a certifying committee for Special Olympics that gives the distinction to schools who have “demonstrated a commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 national standards of excellence.”

In total, there are over 60 schools in the state of Nebraska that participate in Unified sports to some capacity. Right now, the NSAA sanctioned sports offered for Nebraska high schools are bowling, flag football and cheerleading, with more sports likely to follow in the coming years.

Providing students with the opportunity to join these teams imbues them with skills and relationships that are truly impactful to the lives of all involved. Coverage of Unified Sports and the infrastructure surrounding them are vastly improved from where they began, and there is hope that they will continue to improve and meet similar popularity to traditional interscholastic competition. As Unified Sports continue to grow, Nebraska has established itself as a state where the program can thrive.

“There’s no reason every school shouldn’t have unified teams available,” Sandman said.