The Special Olympics Southern California (SOSC) flag football team was informed it will not be allowed to participate in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Florida, scheduled for June in Orlando, due to an insufficient number of players — the result of several participants, including Coby Herroon, not satisfying the parent organization's COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Attorney Erik Weber, himself autistic and a longtime Special Olympics athlete and coach, recently wrote Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., the Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, and the Florida Department of Health to advocate for individual medical freedom for athletes, coaches, volunteers, and families at sporting events and festivities.
The Florida Department of Health responded last week by telling Weber, based on the information provided, it did not appear Special Olympics violated the Florida Statute preventing businesses from requiring "patrons or customers to provide any documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccination or post infection recovery to gain access to, entry upon, or service from the business operations in this state."
Weber's hope now rests with DeSantis.
"An executive order would be in place while the Florida legislature works on a bill that would codify such protections," Weber told Newsmax when describing his ideal scenario. "It is also my hope that Gov. DeSantis can create an executive order pertaining to individual medical freedom in sports, with enough time remaining for Coby Herroon's flag football team to be reinstated in USA Games."
Special Olympics Inc. implemented a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for its world and regional competitions, including the 2022 USA Games.
"Research, such as the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine Catalyst revealed that people with intellectual disability are 2.5 times more likely to contract COVID, and almost six times more likely to die from COVID than the general population," Special Olympics wrote in an email to Newsmax.
"We have an obligation to do everything we can to give our athletes the opportunity to compete at the highest levels, safely, and Special Olympics will not knowingly risk the health or lives of our athletes as a result of COVID-19."
Southern California team members have until Friday to submit proof of full vaccination — something the 19-year-old Herroon, who is autistic and suffering from a seizure disorder, will not be doing.
"I have had a medical doctor who advised against my son getting vaccinated," Herroon's mom, Ellen Hildebrand, told Newsmax.
Hildebrand, a coach on her son's team, believes vaccination should be an individual's choice. She also does not understand why testing is not an option to allow all non-infected athletes — those vaccinated and unvaccinated — to participate.
"I feel that the mandate doesn't make sense; I feel that it's discriminatory," Hildebrand told Newsmax. "I don't understand why testing is not an option since people who are vaccinated are getting COVID. They could even continue testing at the USA Games.
"If they made testing an option, which makes perfect, logical sense to me, then I believe our team would still go."
Special Olympics, in emails to Newsmax, avoided addressing testing directly.
"It is our belief that vaccinations are still the strongest verified protective measure against the severities of COVID-19 available," the organization said, after being asked whether requiring participants to undergo testing had been considered.
Special Olympics, founded in 1968 by former President John Kennedy's sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, told Newsmax that the USA Games local organizing committee's medical team would entertain appeals for medically valid circumstances. For Herroon and his teammates, that meant SOSC.
In a Feb. 1 letter to Team Southern California, families were told that remaining unvaccinated would mean being ineligible for the USA Games, there was no mention of an appeal.
"If you decide to remain unvaccinated, you will no longer be eligible to attend the 2022 USA Games as a member of Team Southern California," wrote Brian Richter, SOSC assistant vice president, community partnerships.
"This is completely your decision and SOSC respects whichever way you decide to proceed."
Newsmax reached out to Richter to ask about the appeal process, and received a reply from SOSC Marketing & Communications Assistant Vice President Brian Szczerbinski.
"Yes, we are aware of the medical appeal process," Szczerbinski wrote Newsmax. "As this event is not overseen by Special Olympics Southern California, we are fulfilling our commitment to bring a delegation to the Special Olympics USA Games, which includes meeting the vaccine requirement.
"Due to a variety of circumstances, we sadly are not able to send a flag football team to the Games. I am not at liberty to say if an appeal was made or not due to the privacy around everyone's medical situation. I can say that we did everything we could to send the team to the Games — and if an athlete or coach met the criteria for a medical appeal, we would assist them in filing it."
In a follow-up phone conversation, Szczerbinski told Newsmax that while the SOSC would assist an athlete in filing an appeal, such an effort would not be initiated if the team still would be lacking enough participants.
Hildebrand said SOSC's official word cemented a decision that her team itself had been nearing.
"There was more than one athlete who was not vaccinated and a coach who's not vaccinated," she told Newsmax, "and all together, with the safety considerations and the camaraderie of having the team together, there was some discussion that the team probably would not be going as a team.
"Some of the parents of athletes who were vaccinated didn't feel comfortable sending their athletes with significant people missing."
Hildebrand, who recently was terminated from her employment as a special education teacher because she was unvaccinated, has tried to secure a medical exemption for her son, but has not succeeded because of California's medical care.
"Doctors are unwilling to provide exemptions for fear of being retaliated against by the medical industry," Weber said.
Hildebrand said even if a person gets a doctor to suggest a medical exemption, the organization or employer can find a doctor who disagrees.
"They set up a new process, an immunization registry, and not only is it hard to get a medical exemption because the criteria's so narrow, if you got a doctor to fill out the form, their opinion could be revoked," she said.
As for her son, Hildebrand said he has not comprehended fully the situation.
"I feel it's very unfortunate that Special Olympics, an organization that stands for inclusion and bringing people together and giving equal opportunity to people with disability, made this type of decision," Hildebrand said.
"I feel the mandates are dividing us as a population, as communities with all the publicity and the politics — there's a lot of encouragement for division. I really do want to get past that. I want everybody to start coming back together and respect each other's positions."
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