Education Secretary Betsy DeVos didn’t just receive criticism from members of Congress on Tuesday over the Trump Administration’s proposal to cut funding for the Special Olympics.
Among those decrying the funding proposal online were several ESPN personalities, perhaps not surprising given the network’s long association with the Special Olympics. The organization works to provide athletic opportunities for children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities, and ESPN has been airing Special Olympics events for more than three decades, including extensive coverage of the recent World Games in Abu Dhabi.
ESPN’s Julie Foudy, Kevin Negandhi and Jen Lada played major roles in that coverage, and they each took to social media Tuesday to laud the benefits of the Special Olympics. Saying that the “world needs more” of the organization’s work, Foudy, a soccer analyst and former U.S. team star, tweeted, “The joy those athletes pass on is absolutely contagious.”
The amount of money potentially saved by the government if it eliminated its support for the Special Olympics would be $17.6 million. That’s a relative drop in the bucket for a sprawling federal agency, but the Trump Administration is looking to cut more than $8.5 billion, or approximately 12 percent, from the Education Department budget.
“We had to make some difficult decisions with this budget,” DeVos said Tuesday in an exchange with Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) about the Special Olympics. He asked her if she knew “how many kids are going to be affected by that cut,” and when DeVos said she didn’t, he told her it would be 272,000 children.
DeVos described the Special Olympics as “an awesome organization” and “one that is well supported by the philanthropic sector.” A spokesman for the education secretary told CNN Tuesday that DeVos, whose father and father-in-law were billionaire business executives, donated part of her salary to the organization last year and is “personally supportive of Special Olympics and its mission.”
In prepared remarks to the House education subcommittee, DeVos cited a need for “fiscal discipline,” saying, “We are not doing our children any favors when we borrow from their future in order to invest in systems and policies that are not yielding better results. Overwhelming federal debt may prove to be the single greatest barrier that future generations will face in trying to achieve the full potential of the American dream, and we cannot continue to kick that can down the road.”
“The government must resist the urge to pick winners and losers among students, institutions, and occupations,” DeVos added her prepared testimony. “Instead, we must encourage and enable every student to be their best self and live their best life.”
DeVos released a statement on Wednesday further explaining her testimony, noting that Special Olympics is not a federal program and has been successful fundraising on its own.
“There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don’t get a dime of federal grant money,” the statement said. “But given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly the ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”
However, referring Tuesday to DeVos’s repeated attempts to cut funding for the Special Olympics since she started running the Department of Education in 2017, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said, “I still can’t understand why you would go after disabled children in your budget. It’s appalling.”
On Twitter, Negandhi pointed to having been part of ESPN’s Special Olympics coverage for the past five years and said that “watching the growth, confidence and true happiness from the athletes and their families has changed my life.” He asserted that the “power of inclusion” is not just specific to two weeks of the organization’s Games but “has a daily impact on athletes, families, friends, coaches, unified partners, volunteers.”
“You realize what is most important — to live life without judgement, [with] an open mind and heart,” he added. Negandhi also posted photos of some Special Olympics participants and noted how their lives had been affected.
Lada also posted photos of Special Olympics participants while saying, “They are the best of us.”
Another ESPN personality, Sarah Spain, called DeVos’s exchange with Pocan “tough to watch.” The network’s Kenny Mayne declared on Twitter, “Our family supports Special Olympics” and added that the same went for “the company I work for.”
“The power of sports lies in the ability to instill & inspire positive change — & that’s at the core of what [the Special Olympics] does,” tweeted Tony Reali, host of ESPN’s “Around the Horn.” He added, “Athletes have opportunities to discover new skills and abilities. Those discoveries lead to joy, confidence & enhancement on & off the playing field.”
“Let’s talk about the power of humanity. Because this is a test for all,” Reali continued on Twitter. “We all vote … everyday of our lives. We all have a budget plan … everyday of our lives. Look inward. We are all asked to include all people, everyday.”
ESPN’s Keith Olbermann, a former MSNBC host known for his outspoken political views, tweeted of DeVos’s testimony, “Same budget: Executive Salaries in her department will go up 15%. Congress — particularly the House — will, on a bipartisan basis, eat the Secretary’s Special Olympics proposal for lunch.”
Many others weighed in online, including former secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who tweeted, “Imagine looking at the federal budget and thinking to yourself: Let’s gut Medicare, slash Social Security, and defund the Special Olympics so we can buy more tanks we don’t need and make the rich even richer. Yet these are the people now in charge of our government.”
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