Wednesday, May 30, 2001

Casey Martin’s fight against the PGA Tour, for all its national interest and depth as a human interest story, appears destined to become a footnote in sports history, legal experts say.
The Supreme Court’s surprise 7-2 ruling to allow the disabled golfer the use of a cart during Tour events grants the 28-year-old a chance to finish out his playing career before his atrophied right leg gives out entirely. Martin suffers from Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, a rare circulatory condition that makes walking long distances all but impossible.
But its impact as a precedent-setting case for future claims likely will be muted. Despite the Court’s strong assertion that walking is not a fundamental part of tournament golf, Martin achieved an uncommon double-play of being talented enough to compete for a Tour playing card while convincing the court that using a cart still would leave him worse off than his competitors.
Any subsequent case seeking to use PGA Tour, Inc. vs. Martin as a foundation will need the same two attributes. The Americans with Disabilities Act, on which this case entered, bars discrimination against the disabled in public accommodations, including golf courses and entertainment sites.
The rule, however, does not apply to professional sporting events in which making adjustments would alter the integrity of play. Martin successfully argued his request for a cart would do no such thing.
“The floodgates won’t be opened here,” said Mark Conrad, law professor at Fordham University School of Business and a frequent lecturer on sports law. “There will likely be a handful of cases stemming from this, particularly in individual sports, since they appear to have interpreted the ADA somewhat broadly.
“But there are practical concerns from a case like this. You still have to be good enough to compete on the PGA Tour, for example. And with team sports, it’s going to be just about impossible to argue a case like this and not have the desired accommodation not result in a competitive advantage.”
The core of the Court’s ruling rested largely on Martin’s grim condition. His leg is now so withered and painful that amputation will likely be the end result. Even with a cart, Martin still must walk more than a mile during every 18-hole round.
“There is no doubt that allowing Martin to use a cart would not fundamentally alter the nature of [the PGA Tour’s] tournaments, given the District Court’s uncontested finding that Martin endures greater fatigue with a cart than his able-bodied competitors do by walking,” read the Supreme Court’s decision.
After Martin’s fight against the PGA Tour began 1997, Indiana golfer Ford Olinger unsuccessfully sought similar legal refuge from a U.S. Golf Association no-cart rule so he could compete in a U.S. Open qualifier.
Olinger suffers from a degenerative hip condition that also makes walking an 18-hole course difficult. Olinger, however, displayed neither the talent nor the extreme severity of condition that Martin has.
“This is really a rather unique situation,” said Matthew Mitten, director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “Even if there were a similar situation later on, there are still a number of hurdles to clear. The impediment must transcend into life activities. An ailment that exists solely in the context of the occupation, in this case playing golf, would not be enough.”
In the dissenting opinion, however, Justice Antonin Scalia argued the ruling could open the doors to a myriad of sports disability claims at every level of play. Just on the PGA Tour, several players, including Hal Sutton, suffer from fairly serious back ailments.
“One can envision the parents of a Little League player with attention deficit disorder trying to convince a judge that their son’s disability makes it at least 25 percent more difficult to hit a pitched ball,” Scalia wrote.
The effect of the Court’s ruling on Martin itself likely will be moot. Not only is his right leg continuing to deteriorate, so is his quality of play. Martin currently ranks 115th on the lower Tour with $6,433 in winnings. The top 15 money leaders on the Tour each year receive PGA Tour cards for the following year.
“I would much rather be able to not use a cart,” Martin said. “This is not how I choose to play golf.”

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide