By John Williams Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 on May 31 that the Professional Golf Assn. must allow disabled golfer Casey Martin to ride a golf cart during tournaments, there has been a deluge of negative reaction and ridicule, especially from my media brethren. Many editorial writers and columnists see this decision as exposing professional golf -- and all sports for that matter -- to a myriad of lawsuits. The fear seems to be that spectator sports will become a playground for people with disabilities.
What groundless nonsense! For those unfamiliar with the case, Martin has Klippel-Trenauay Syndrome. His right leg is withered and almost impossible to walk on. Walking on it causes him great pain. In 1997, Martin asked the PGA to allow him to ride a golf cart from hole to hole so he could compete with able-bodied golfers. The PGA said no. Martin filed suit under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). And so started a three-and-a-half-year battle with the PGA.
There are many pluses from this decision for Martin -- for athletics, for people with disabilities, and for the country as a whole. Without reciting the legal merits of the case, let's discuss the attitudinal hurdles that the country faces as it confronts the decision. Mark my words here: None of the things that the pundits worry about will happen. The country will come to embrace this decision. It will be remembered in the same way that we now recall Jackie Robinson breaking the racial barrier in baseball.
Of the many commentaries I have read and heard on the decision's impact, none of them show much knowledge of the ADA, why it was passed, and what it has achieved to date. I recommend that the pundits read the law to understand its significance to the 54 million people with disabilities in this country who are covered by it.
"NO OTHER RECOURSE." Supreme Court Justice John Stevens, writing for the majority, pointed out in the ruling that Congress, when considering the ADA, discovered, "discrimination against individuals with disabilities persists in such critical areas as employment, housing, public accommodations.... And unlike individuals who have experienced discrimination on the basis of race, color, [or] sex...individuals with disabilities have often no other recourse to address such discrimination."
Martin, disabled people, and the courts all believed the PGA Tour was guilty of discrimination under the ADA. Martin was correct to sue under the law. The PGA was wrong to fight it. The decision is an affirmation that the ADA is an anti-discrimination law. What is wrong with that decision? Eliminating discrimination is a worthy goal for a strong country.
Stevens also points out that Martin's "disorder constitutes a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act." The PGA conceded that point from the beginning. The definition of a disability under the ADA is "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of an individual." As a professional disabled golfer, not having a reasonable accommodation -- the golf cart -- substantially limits Martin's opportunities to earn a living. Using the cart as a traveling accommodation does not alter the nature of the game, which is to put the little white ball in the hole with as few club strokes as possible. All it does is allow him to compete with other professional golfers. After that, it's all up to Martin.
DIFFERENT FOCUS. Some columnists are writing that anyone can now claim to be disabled and ask for frivolous accommodations that could give them an unfair advantage over opponents. Not so. The court is saying that all the parties must agree that if a person has a disability as defined by the ADA, they must not discriminate against that person because of the disability. Given the reverence with which people with disabilities see the ADA, I am certain you will not see a flood of frivolous complaints. So let's not light a fire where there isn't one.
One columnist declared that, because of the Supreme Court decision, "a wheelchair bound, three-point shooter would have the right to play in the National Basketball Assn. if someone wanted to use him." Well, sure. But the game of basketball involves running, jumping, shooting, and blocking -- almost all of it done by very tall people. Those using a wheelchair can't do any of these required tasks on the same level as an able-bodied NBA player, and they know it. I don't know of any person using a wheelchair who would try out for an NBA team. It's an absurd example that shows the writer doesn't understand the ADA.
In 2001, it's time to stop thinking about the inabilities of the disabled and start thinking about their abilities. Martin's disability meets the ADA definition. Under the ADA, he is entitled to accommodations that equalize playing opportunities for him. In asking for the cart, he was not requesting someone to swing his golf club for him. He was not asking for the distances between the holes to be shortened. He was asking for accommodation.
Lest we forget, for Martin, this victory has a personal price. There will be a lot of pressure on him to show his fight was worth the effort, and that he has the athletic ability to be a major competitor. Unfortunately, should he fail, disabled athletes could be reluctant to fight for their rights.
TIGER CALL. What I don't understand is the PGA's attitude toward the decision. It denounced it, but said it would accept it. Simultaneously, it trotted out golfing great Jack Nicklaus who defended the PGA's position. I respect Jack Nicklaus greatly, but this is a new era, with new players and new rules and attitudes toward people with disabilities. Let me pose this question: Why didn't the PGA Tour ask Tiger Woods to comment on the ruling? Is the PGA Tour afraid he might endorse the decision? So Tiger, I ask you, what do you think?
When Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier for baseball, the hysterical fear was that white ticket buyers would stay away from the game. Instead, Robinson's talents enlivened and enriched the sport. Once ticket buyers saw him play, they flocked to games, as they have flocked to see Hispanics, Asians, and other races play baseball, basketball, football, and other professional sports. Player diversity has proven to be great for these games. The PGA should remember what Robinson did for sports in America. He certainly opened up the field for Tiger Woods.
The Martin victory gives hope to other golfers with disabilities. It will encourage them to play. And soon, as a result of this decision, they will be as common on the PGA Tour as other players, and the incident involving Martin will fade into the past.
Like the Brown v. The Board of Education Supreme Court decision that desegregated America's schools in 1954, the Supreme Court's new ruling simply puts a group of disadvantaged Americans on the same footing as other citizens in order to compete in the workplace. My advice to the PGA is to extend an olive branch to Martin and make every effort to show it will abide by the decision and accept the consequences -- which will include more viewers and more revenue. History, the laws, and the will of the people are on the side of justice and social progress. Casey Martin will be great for golf. The ruling increases opportunities for people with disabilities to become better amateur and professional athletes. Williams writes Assistive Technology every week, only for BW Online.
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