Fall Fest Torch Run Creates Campus Controversy


Courtesy of Special Olympics Pennsylvania

The Law Enforcement Torch Run unites officers from law enforcement agencies and corrections departments across the state in a year-round effort to raise funds and awareness for the Special Olympics movement.

Lydia McFarlane and Sarah Sweeney

The University’s 34th annual Fall Fest for Special Olympics took place from Nov. 4-6. The mission of this year’s Fall Fest mission was to highlight the role of connection in growth. 

“This year’s theme highlights the value of connection and togetherness in fostering growth,” the official website stated. 

However, a police officer carrying a Blue Lives Matter flag during the opening torch run event has caused division and has drawn questioning from much of the University’s student body.

Videos from the torch run of the flag being flown circled around campus and caused concern among many students, especially those of marginalized groups. The Blue Lives Matter movement was created as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which stands up for the lives of unarmed Black men and women who are killed at the hands of police. The University’s chapter of the Black Student Union reached out to its members to reassure them that someone would be held accountable for this action.

“It has been brought to our attention that during the opening events of Special Olympics Pennsylvania’s (SOPA) 34th Fall Festival (which is typically and annually hosted by Villanova University), a political display was made that has upset and caused concern for many students of color who attend Villanova,” the email said. “Specifically, the ‘Blue Lives Matter’ flag on display during the festivities.”

The email went on to say that BSU would be scheduling an emergency meeting with the Office of Student Life to address this event that happened on campus. 

After chatter around campus and statements from organizations such as the Black Student Union, Villanova Special Olympics came out with its own statement written by its management team and DEI and awareness committee. It was addressed to the Villanova community on Nov. 12, six days after the final day of Special Olympics Fall Fest and eight days from the Torch Run event that the flag was carried at.

“We are writing to address the presence of the Blue Lives Matter flag at the Torch Run at Villanova on November 4th,” the email said. “While this flag may mean many different things to different people, the flag is a political statement that communicates a threatening and exclusionary message. The last thing we want is for anyone to feel excluded at an event focused on inclusion. We recognize how this occurrence detracted from people’s experience with Fall Fest and we sincerely apologize for this.”

Students on the Special Olympics board, as well as administrators, were unaware that the flag would be held during the Torch Run. The torch run is planned and executed by Special Olympics Pennsylvania, the state level organization, and its partnership with local law enforcement. This was addressed in the Villanova Special Olympics statement as well.

“Villanova students were not aware that this flag would be present,” it said. “Despite the distinction, this is our campus and unawareness does not excuse the lack of action taken once the flag was there.”

Because the flying of the Blue Lives Matter flag elicited negative responses from several multicultural organizations, such as the Black Student Union and the Latin American Student Association, the University’s Special Olympics organization also thanked them for coming forward and providing them with an opportunity to learn. 

“Thank you to those of you that expressed concern and spoke up,” the statement said. “Our team appreciates the opportunity to learn from student groups like the Black Student Union and the Latin American Student Organization.”

The Villanovan reached out to the Radnor Police Department about its reasoning behind bringing this flag to an event that was co-hosted by Special Olympics Pennsylvania, which is apolitical and nonpartisan. 

Officer Brady McHale from the Radnor Police Department explained that Radnor PD has participated in the Torch Run for the past 10 years. 

“We’re just as much a part of this community as everybody else,” Officer McHale said. “As a police department, it’s very important to effectively do our job to to know those who we work with, and community partnerships is normally how you’re able to solve problems. The fact that we’re invited by Special Olympics of Pennsylvania to run and have officers represent Radnor township in an event that’s in our town – it wouldn’t make sense not to be there.”

Officer Christopher Four explained that the flag flown at the event was “not a Blue Lives Matter flag. It derives from the thin blue line, which has been around for decades and is associated with law enforcement as a group of individuals standing between order and chaos.

“It’s a symbol that unifies us. It’s not us against them. We absolutely include everybody in this and it has nothing to do with resistance to any other political movement or anything.” 

Radnor PD explained it has not been contacted by Special Olympics Villanova, Special Olympics Pennsylvania or Villanova University about the incident. It also clarified that it was not a Radnor PD officer holding the flag, but since the race was held in Radnor Township, it maintains the responsibility for commenting on what happened. It also explained it is more than willing to have conversations with Villanova students, especially those in the Black Student Union and the Latin American Student Organization, who publicly commented on the incident. 

However, Officer McHale does not want this controversy to detract from the mission of Special Olympics and Fall Fest.

“I think it’s important we don’t take the attention away from what that weekend actually means and the Special Olympic Athletes,” he said.

This flag has different meanings for different people and its presence during the conclusion of the torch run on campus brought up personal and deeply held feelings. For some, the flag represents support for law enforcement; for others, it is a political statement that carries with it a hostile and exclusionary message. As a University, we are responsible to understand, support and care for our students when they have a deeply painful experience on the campus they call home. Such an impact on our students—especially during a weekend focused on inclusion—was concerning and unfortunate. We hope this matter will lead to important dialogue and a greater understanding of diverse viewpoints on a difficult issue,” the University commented.