Brown community to honor Eli Wolff ’00 during Reunion Weekend

A memorial event will recognize the life of the disability rights advocate and his legacy at Brown and beyond.

Disability rights advocate Eli Wolff ’00
Disability rights advocate Eli Wolff ’00

On May 27, as part of Reunion Weekend 2023, Brown University community members will gather to honor Eli Wolff ’00, who passed away on April 4, 2023. The former Paralympian and member of the Brown men’s soccer team was a leading global advocate for disability justice—a passion that was nurtured and furthered when he was a student on College Hill.

At the time of his passing, Wolff was the co-chair of a steering committee that is currently working to establish a disability and neurodiversity affinity community for Brown alumni—just one of the many ways he gave back to Brown as an alumnus, says Zack Langway ’09, Brown’s vice president for alumni relations.

“Eli Wolff made immeasurable contributions to the Brown community as a mentor, advocate, changemaker, and thought leader—and to the world as a leading voice in the fight for disability justice,” Langway says. “It was a true privilege to witness his advocacy in action, and I am deeply saddened by the untimely passing of such an incredible human being. We are honored to call Eli a Brunonian and to reflect on and celebrate his life and legacy during Reunion Weekend.”

A spark ignited at Brown

Wolff’s lifelong advocacy to provide everyone—no matter their background or ability—a place in sport began at Brown. As a recipient of the Swearer Center’s Royce Fellowship in 1998, Wolff researched the scope and effectiveness of the seven sports organizations for those with disabilities in the U.S. His Royce project became his life's work. And according to friend and fellow disability rights activist Jonathan Mooney ’00, Brown’s approach to education served as its foundation.

“Eli told me on a number of occasions that the University’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion when he was a student—and the fundamental core Brown pedagogical value of individuals charting their own educational journey—were the reasons that he launched his career as a disability justice advocate,” Mooney says. “They played a foundational role in bringing the world Eli Wolff as we know him today.”

As a young child, Wolff suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed on his left side. Despite this, Wolff displayed a deep skill and passion for athletics, specifically soccer. “Soccer was the place where I could really feel free, a safe place,” Wolff told the Boston Globe in 2007. “Even at an early age, I was in the zone when I was running. My body would loosen up.”

“ Through his tireless global advocacy work, [he] aimed to provide everyone, no matter their background or ability, a place in sport that made them feel empowered and find joy. ”

Stuart Sharp Senior director of technical and grassroots, U.S. Soccer’s Extended National Team Department

Wolff played for the U.S. Men’s Cerebral Palsy National Team from 1995 to 2004, representing the U.S. at the 1996 and 2004 Paralympic Games competing in several Pan American Games and World Championships. He also played for the Brown men’s soccer team.

It was off the field, however, where Wolff made his most significant impact, says Stuart Sharp, senior director of technical and grassroots in the U.S. Soccer’s Extended National Team Department. “Through his tireless global advocacy work, [he] aimed to provide everyone, no matter their background or ability, a place in sport that made them feel empowered and find joy.”

In 2000 Wolff rallied national disability sport organizations to support professional golfer Casey Martin in his successful case against the Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) before the U.S. Supreme Court. Martin, a professional golfer with a circulatory disorder, won the right to use a golf cart on the (PGA) Tour. Wolff’s work expanded to global advocacy from 2004 to 2006 when he led a successful global effort to include provisions addressing sport and recreation within the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Wolff also helped to establish the ESPY Award for Best Athlete with a Disability (Men’s Sports and Women’s Sports categories).

Expanding the impact of his work

From 2001 to 2010, Wolff was the manager of research and advocacy at the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University and also co-founded Disability in Sport International, Athletes for Human Rights, and the Olympism Project. He worked closely with multiple organizations focused on inclusion and the unifying power of sport, including the Power of Sport Lab, and the Inclusive Sports Initiative at the Institute for Human Centered Design. Most recently Wolff worked as a sport management instructor at the University of Connecticut. 

Wolff was the recipient of numerous awards and accolades, including the inaugural 2001 Nike Casey Martin Award honoring people with disabilities who have made a difference in sports. In 2009, he received the Heroes Among Us recognition from the Boston Celtics.

Though his life after Brown was busy and full, Wolff nonetheless remained engaged and committed to the Brown community throughout his life. In 2007, he helped steward the Royce Sport and Society Fellowship, a program that gave students the opportunity to conduct scholarly research on athletics, serving as a mentor and connector for Royce fellows. Wolff also ran the Sport and Development Initiative at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, which examined the intersection of sports, development, and human rights in global, domestic, and local contexts. In 2022 he and Mooney together advocated for the creation of a disability and neurodiversity affinity group community for alumni. 

Wolff loved Brown and believed it was a perfect place to implement ideas around sport and society and between sport and disability access, says Kerrissa Heffernan, former associate director of the Swearer Center and director of the Royce Fellowship. He formally and informally mentored dozens of Brown students, frequently connecting them to important figures in the professional sports community with a simple, friendly phone call.

“He was wonderful; students loved him, and he was able to leverage so many amazing opportunities for them,” Heffernan says. ”He was so kind and generous with his time. He was a gift.”

Remembering Eli


Watch the full footage of the memorial, honoring the life and legacy of Eli Wolff ’00 and officiated by University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson.