- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 3, 2001

For anyone holding out hope that somewhere, some corner of American life could remain outside the control of meddling legislators, regulators, and judges, Last Tuesdays Supreme Court decision in the Casey Martin case carries a succinct message: Ha. Ha. Ha. If those official personages are competent to make war, levy taxes, combat pollution and enforce the Bill of Rights, they are surely competent to run every other aspect of your life, and they intend to do just that.

Mr. Martin is a professional golfer with a serious ailment: a degenerative circulatory illness that has weakened and atrophied his right leg, making walking not only painful but dangerous. In collegiate play, he was allowed to use a golf cart instead of having to walk the course like his competitors.

But the PGA Tour refused to grant him that exemption in professional tournaments. So Mr. Martin sued, arguing that the tour had a legal obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act to accommodate his disability by letting him ride instead of walk. And this week, the Supreme Court agreed.

Now, it is hard to root against a talented young athlete who has faced much greater obstacles than most of his fellow professionals. If I, a nongolfer, were running the tour, I might agree to grant Mr. Martin whatever transport he needs. But running the PGA Tour is not my rightful prerogative, and it´s not the Supreme Court´s, either.

The people who superintend championship golf think walking is an essential part of the game, which is why it has always been mandated in PGA tournaments. In this case, numerous experts lined up to state what they regard as obvious: The fatigue caused by walking can be a decisive factor in a tournament.

Golf great Ken Venturi, a longtime TV golf analyst, testified that, "Fatigue does play a big part. It will influence your game. It will influence your shot-making. It will influence your decisions." To let one participant dispense with it, the tour argued, would "fundamentally alter" professional golf.

Nonsense, said Justice John Paul Stevens, a golfer himself. The rules of golf don´t require walking. Lots of professional golf tournaments allow carts, including the senior tours. "From early on," wrote Justice Stevens, "the essence of the game has been shot-making using clubs to cause a ball to progress from the teeing ground to a hole some distance away with as few strokes as possible."

Justice Stevens says the exertion required to stroll a 5-mile course is trivial. Besides, if fatigue from muscle-power locomotion affects other competitors, Mr. Martin has to deal with his own fatigue, which comes from his ailment. So things even out.

Well, maybe so, and maybe not. The nature of sports is not to equalize the demands placed on participants of varying degrees of fitness and skill; it´s to impose one set of rules on all comers strong and weak, fast and slow. But a bigger issue is at stake. The PGA Tour has decided that the "essence of the game" is inseparable from walking. Who are the justices of the Supreme Court to substitute their judgment about the matter?

No one is stopping any competing professional golf organizations from allowing carts. Why should the court stop the PGA Tour from banning them? Why should only one interpretation of the "essence of the game" be allowed?

Mr. Martin´s lawyers say it´s because depriving him of a cart amounts to discrimination against the disabled. But no one in Congress who voted for the ADA could have imagined it would force organized sports to make rules changes for the benefit of the handicapped. And if Mr. Martin´s illness demands a change in the PGA rules, then other athletes will demand that their sports accommodate their needs.

Will the ladies´ tour have to provide carts to pregnant golfers? Will runners or swimmers with lung ailments be entitled to extra time between heats? Could a pitcher with only one hand (like former major leaguer Jim Abbott) force the National League to let a designated hitter bat for him since the American League has already shown that the "essence of the game" doesn´t require pitchers to hit?

Some of the possibilities are not hypothetical. One family sued a soccer league insisting that their 9-year-old son, who has cerebral palsy, be allowed to use a metal walker. A federal court found a youth baseball league violated the ADA when it barred a child who used crutches. Walter Olson, author of "The Excuse Factory," a book on employment law, sardonically suggests a slogan for this growing campaign to bring sports under the ADA: "Every Olympics a Special Olympics."

It´s an open question if and how much athletics ought to change to make competition easier for the disabled. The more important question, though, is who will ultimately decide: professional and amateur sports bodies or government officials. But you already know the answer.

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