Ethics Quiz: The Lettering Of Michael Kelley


Controversy in Kansas:

Michael Kelley is a high school student who has Down Syndrome and autism. He plays extra-curricular special needs basketball, so his family bought him a varsity letter and had it sewed to a school jacket to resemble the jacket the school’s athletes wear. The school’s special needs teams are not regarded as  varsity sports.

The school asked Michael to remove the jacket or the letter, since East High’s policies dictate that only varsity teams can wear the letter.

Now Michael’s mother is petitioning the school board to ensure that special needs team members get letters. Public reaction in Wichita is running against the school, which is being painted as cruel and lacking compassion by not letting Michael wear his letter jacket.

Your Ethics Alarm Ethics Quiz this almost spring weekend (March is back to being a lion here in the D.C. area) is this:

Should the school have let the special needs athlete wear his counterfeit letter jacket?

My view is that it depends.

Being pre-biased by my high school experience of having to endure a bunch of strutting, arrogant jerks wearing letters—yes, I wrote a school paper editorial arguing that the chess team (of which I was the captain) should get the same amount of prestige and support and the football team—I find the whole idea of varsity letters ridiculous, and a seed of the warped education priorities that we now see in full bloom during March Madness. From that viewpoint, anyone should be able to wear a letter. That, of course, would make the letter meaningless except as decoration, and end its prestige value.

The reason Michael’s parents gave him the letter, however, is because of its prestige value. In this respect, it is like the “award winning” cheerleading team with the Down Syndrome cheerleader. It’s a fake honor, dripping with kindness, compassion and good intentions, but still fake.

Now the questions become…

1. If the school wants the letters to mean that the wearer is a bona fide athlete who has earned the honor, what does a student wearing a letter because his parents thought one would make him feel good about himself do to that objective? Why won’t other parents do the same? If an autistic child gets a letter, why not obese kids, or members of the math club? Or will the rule be that athletes and autistic Down Syndrome students get letters? Are autism and Down Syndrom to be treated like a sport now?

2. Why should a child wearing a letter that obviously wasn’t awarded for athletic prowess but rather out of kindness bother anyone, especially the parent of an athlete? Does it suggest that athletes are autistic? Isn’t the reason for the letter obvious? It’s the “Awww! Factor”.* Some commenters on the news story observed that the school doesn’t force the girl friends of the athletes to stop wearing the athletes’ letter jackets to proclaim that they are some jock’s main squeeze. Why is that practice any less subversive than letting a Down Syndrome child wear a pretend varsity letter?

3. Are special needs children going to be treated like they are part of the school community like anyone else, subject to the same rules and standards, or is the plan to pretend that they are like everyone else while actually giving them special advantages? If it is the former, then the criteria for wearing a letter should be exactly the same as for any other student, which also means that the student doesn’t get a place on a team by simply showing up. If it is the latter, then why stop at letters? Tell the autistic Down Syndrome child that he’s a valedictorian, a top debater, an artist: let him play Harold Hill in the school production of “The Music Man.” Then hope and pray that for the rest of his life, people keep giving him jobs and recognition whether he qualifies for them or not.

To paraphrase Obi Wan: “The Awww! is strong in this one. “

Someone has  posted a petition on calling on the district to allow Michael Kelley and other students with Down syndrome or other special needs to wear varsity letters for the teams they play on, and has more than 15,000 signatures.

“I plan on presenting my petition at the BOE meeting in Wichita on Monday,” said the petition’s organizer. “I would like at least 10,000 signatures and we have over 6,000 now. I am beyond proud of the response from our Kansas community and surrounding communities! Thank you to everyone who is supporting! #GiveThemLetters”

Also #PutThemInCongress, #MakeThemProfessors, and #MarryThemToTaylorSwift, because life is always like that.

Now East High’s rival’s principal is seeking the Awww! championship (and sticking it to East High) by saying that “We can’t be cookie cutter. We have all kinds of kids with all kinds of different needs and we need to be able to make our rules adjust to meet those needs,” and sending Michael an official varsity letter and with the message: “You can be a part of something anywhere you want to.”

Sure. That’s true. Isn’t it?

*The “Awww!” Factor: The “Awww!” Factor occurs when particular conduct seems loving, caring and nice, but is in fact unethical in one or more respects. Such conduct creates such a positive emotion-based sentimental response that valid ethical analysis becomes difficult or impossible. It is frequently accompanied by the rationalization known as “The Saint’s Excuse,” which endorses unethical conduct that is the result of good intentions.


Pointer: Jeremy Wiggins

Facts:The InquisitorKSN

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts, and seek written permission when appropriate. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, credit or permission, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

18 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Lettering Of Michael Kelley

  1. There’s this cheerleader in Manitou Springs who is expecting a bus ticket to the Big Apple for her big Broadway debut……

  2. In my high school, the varsity letter was awarded to athletes, based on number of quarters played…or, being a senior. Yep, all seniors lettered, regardless of skill or number of quarters played. Not sure why. In my case, they might have been so glad to get rid of me…. well, that’s another post.

  3. No. “Everyone gets a prize” and its variants will be the ruin of this nation. We are being softened and sensitized, like veal calves.

  4. Some observations.

    In the article I read, written by the region’s local news, they said that the letter was an official school letter not a replica or a fake. It’s worse when it’s real, but not by much, if it’s close enough to be confusing the award is cheapened.

    More importantly, I think is the culture of the school and the community. Kansas high school football is definitely taken more seriously than, say, California high school football so for where the down syndrome student lives, the letter almost certainly carries, and is intended to display, prestige.

    I’d also add the girlfriends comment is pure apples and oranges. There is a huge difference in symbolism between the two. Girlfriends wearing a rightfully earned and willfully loaned jacket is an expression of trust and commitment from the athlete in question and has nothing to do with the expression of athletic accomplishment on the part of the wearer. In short girlfriends aren’t claiming, and thereby cheapening, the award when they wear it. Someone who wears an unearned or illegitimate jacket simply because they play the sport is doing exactly that.

    For context, I was an AP nerd in high school and my high school’s football program was middling at best, so I dont care one way or the other about high school football. But awards and symbols have meaning and it’s undoubtedly unethical for people to corrupt an otherwise benign meaning simply because it makes them feel good.

  5. I don’t think the school has any right to enforcement on something like this. I can see some limited dress code to keep some sense of order in the school, but this is the school creating a category of clothing for the purpose of making restrictions about it. They can state their case, but others should be allowed to ignore them in peace.

    • Can’t speak to other states, or other times, but in 1963 Texas, when I graduated, a Varsity Letter was considered a @trademark. It was, therefore, the school’s property do be distributed as they saw fit.

  6. I was given a certificate in scouting making me an “honorary detective” after some event once with the police, but it carried no official value, of course. I think a good approach, that might achieve the feel-good value of kindness but not devalue the real thing, in this case might be to declare this student an “honorary letterman,” or “special needs letterman” with no official standing.

    • I don’t know, I found a box full of ribbons from my cross country days… I was excited to see one that said “13th Place”, but then unimpressed when it said “Junior Varsity”. Did not even have a time written on it…

      I actually made varsity my senior year (and not the symbolic kind for sticking it out for four years). I was the seventh fastest runner on the team that year, and earned the opportunity to compete in the league championship’s Varsity race. The pin represents running hundreds of miles of independent practice over the summer prior (as well as the dumb luck that only six others on the team practiced more that year).

      Generic “rewards” for participation, I think, cheapen real rewards. I am stuck with a bunch of trophies from little league, despite maybe getting on base once in three years. However, I have no qualms with mementos, such as team photos. Participating, even with limited personal achievement, earns you the right to have fond memories; such trinkets help reinforce those memories. Those who do not participate, do not get those memories. The kid may never get a varsity letter, but getting the team jacket is still a privilege few will earn.

  7. As soon as I read this story, I knew it would be on this page.

    You overlooked the brain dead response of the school administrators, which was to take away the jacket, and give him a girl’s sweater instead. :facepalm:

    While I agree that their should be some sanctity to a reward, if he is cold, at least let him wear the stupid jacket until the end of the day to avoid adding injury!

  8. Honors are given for achievement. This particular honor is given for to an athlete who attains a certain level of prowess as indicated by hitting certain earmarks. If a student who doesn’t meet them gets the honor it soon becomes meaningless. I can think of obvious examples. After President Obama got the Nobel Peace prize the prize was diminished. If Pete Rose is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame the honor is diminished. If the honor isn’t important enough to care about go ahead and give it to the unworthy.

  9. These are not athletes, they are children playing games using taxpayer funded facilities. Sadly, the odious Thiessen is being paid by taxpayers also; it is to be hoped, not much longer. All sports the taxpayer funded school has qualify as ‘letter’ sports or ‘letter’ sports go off school grounds(.)

  10. This story is being mis-represented in the media. It was not the parent of a varsity player who complained; it was the parent of another special needs athlete who complained. Apparently, the school awarded letters to the special needs kids, but this particular mother felt that this recognition was not enough, and then took it upon herself to go out and purchase an award for her child that other kids in the school have to earn. A parent of another special needs student felt that it was unfair for one special needs kid to wear a varsity letter, while the other special needs kids were wearing the letters that their special needs coaches had awarded them. This is not about “discrimination” against a special needs person. This is about yet another over-zealous parent taking matters into her own hands and attempting to over-ride the rules to make her kid feel good about himself and look better than the other kids on his special needs team.

    • No, varsity letters are NOT currently awarded to special needs kids. I am not concerned with the policy—I could argue for it or against it. I could not care less WHY this became an issue. The issue isn’t, however, about the parents at all. The issue is whether you waive rules of qualifications and credentials for some groups and not others based on compassion, and whether that is honest and fair.

      • Jack – I did not say that varsity letters are awarded to special needs kids. I said that LETTERS are awarded to special needs kids. This boy did, in fact, earn a letter from his special needs coach. His mother took it upon herself to go out and purchase a varsity letter for him.

        I think the one point we are all missing is that there are some very talented athletes with special needs who do compete on varsity teams and who do legitimately earn varsity letters in spite of their disabilities. I think giving a varsity to letter to every special needs kid just so that society can say “awwww” is very condescending and diminishes the achievements of the special needs kids who legitimately have earned this honor.

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