Spencer Mackenzie still remembers the day his sister, Tobi, came home distraught. “She was very upset because somebody had called her the R-word,” Mackenzie said of his special needs sister. “I really saw how hurt she was by it, and I thought to myself, ‘anything to help my sister.’ If no one else is going to speak about this, than I am.”
The R-word in question is “retarded,” and Mackenzie, a 15-year-old Liberty Christian sophomore, decided that enough was enough, so he began working on a campaign that would seek to put an end to the use of what he considers a very offensive word as a result.
“I did my research, found out about the whole R-word campaign with the Special Olympics, and went to my middle school football coach, Matt Bowles, and told him my story. He was on board with it and gave me the platform to speak to my entire middle school.”
He was off to a good start, but Mackenzie did not stop raising awareness with just his middle school.
He chose to contact the head coaches of college football teams because the student body usually looks up to the players and Spencer thought it would be a great way to get the word out. He had T-shirts printed with the slogan, “SPREAD THE WORD TO END THE WORD – www.r-word.org” and bought a banner for the football team to sign and display in their student union.
One of the coaches Spencer reached out to about the R-word campaign was Bill Snyder from Kansas State. Spencer wrote a letter asking for a meeting to discuss the Kansas State football team taking the pledge to end the use of the R-word and make a positive social change on the Kansas State campus.
Coach Snyder was the first NCAA coach to personally meet with Spencer. His reply came in the form of an e-mail, which read, “Thank you, Spencer, for your passionate stand and support on such a significant cause. Would enjoy meeting with you in March.”
On March 29, 2011, Spencer had the pleasure of meeting Coach Snyder in his office overlooking the football field at Kansas State, home of the Wildcats. Coach Snyder has six national Coach of the Year awards, five-conference Coach of the Year awards, and has been credited with the architect of the “greatest turnaround in the history of college football”.
During the meeting, Coach Snyder agreed to have the entire Kansas State football team take the pledge to support the cause to end the use of the R-word.
Mackenzie learned later that David Smith, a linebacker with Kansas State, was so inspired after taking the pledge that he signed up as a volunteer with the Special Olympics.
While visiting with Coach Snyder, Spencer also met Coach Joe Gordon, a former NFL player who is now the Director of Recruiting for Kansas State Football. Coach Gordon was excited to spread the word and promptly put on the R-word T-shirt.
“I was so impressed with the character and integrity of both Coach Snyder and Coach Gordon,” said Mackenzie. “They are both passionate about making a difference within their football team and their community. I feel very honored that they took the time to meet with me and that they share my passion to build awareness in society that leads to a positive social change.”
Mackenzie plans to contact all the teams in the Big 10 conference and hopes that they will all follow Coach Snyder’s lead to take the pledge.
Back at home, Mackenzie spoke to the Guyer High School football team about his efforts to end the use of the R-word.
“It was a daunting experience,” Mackenzie laughed. “Those guys are pretty big. But I just went and told them what was on my mind, and it was really great to see how many of them took it to heart.
“A bunch of them came up to me afterward and shook my hand and told me they really want to do this. I think it also says a lot about the kind of man that (Coach) John Walsh is and the type of leadership he provides.”
Coach Walsh said as soon as he learned about the campaign, he knew it was something he and his team needed to get behind.
“The Guyer Football program decided to support this campaign because we believe in treating everyone with respect, and the use of the R-word is disrespectful,” Walsh said. “Our players and coaches consider themselves leaders, and we want to be in the forefront of this campaign…the Guyer football players have embraced this campaign from the moment it was presented to them. They feel it is a worthy cause to support.”
Walsh said he has not personally been affected as Mackenzie has with a loved one who has special needs, but said it is enough just to know how much it means to him to want to help however he can.
“I can only imagine what it can feel like,” Walsh said. “Thinking of that situation helps fuel the passion to support Spencer.”
The Liberty Christian sophomore took his message to the local college ranks as well and spoke to the University of North Texas football team on June 5 in Denton.
Mackenzie said he hopes that a couple of things come from his campaign to stop the use of the R-word.
“My main goal is not make anyone feel guilty,” Mackenzie said. “It’s about educating people about the hurtful effects of the word, and encouraging them to become a fan of respect, by replacing the R-word with “respect”, and using the proper term, which is ‘intellectually disabled’. I just want to raise awareness and spread the word.”
Mackenzie is in good company, as another advocate for doing away with the R-word is former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who has a 3-year-old son with Down syndrome. Palin criticized Rahm Emanuel, former Chief of Staff for President Barack Obama, for using the word together with an expletive during a meeting with liberal activists about healthcare reform in August 2009.
Visit www.r-word.org for more information on the campaign.