Several years ago it was suggested to Sen. Tom Harkin that the Americans With Disabilities Act wasn't created with sports competition in mind, and that the question of golfer Casey Martin being allowed to ride in a cart while playing PGA Tour events was not an applicable topic.
Harkin raised his eyebrows in surprise and answered that Martin's case was exactly the kind of issue that authors of the bill, among whom he was in the lead, had in mind.
He said the ADA was designed to open all facets of life to the disabled. He said it was the law of the land.
Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court decisively agreed, deciding by a 7-2 vote that the PGA Tour's rule that mandates walking is not fundamental to the game of golf.
I authored a 1-0 ruling in Martin's favor in June of 1998 after joining several other writers in a locker room interview with Martin following the first round of the U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco, an event in which he was allowed to use a cart based on a lower-court ruling.
As we spoke, Martin nonchalantly removed two support stockings from his right leg, the one that is affected by a rare, congenital circulatory disorder. As he peeled off the stockings designed to force blood from his leg to his heart, what came into view was something that panelists from What's My Line could not have identified as a human limb.
Still, this drawn out court case wasn't a simple matter of acknowledging that Martin is disabled. That is beyond argument.
This case determined whether a sports governing body could dictate rules, possibly discriminatory against a particular segment of society, to secure what it perceives to be a level playing field. And, by extension, it was a test of the ADA and the fine-line interpretation of what is a right and what is a privilege.
The late Jim Murray, among the greatest of sports columnists, once wrote that if Martin was allowed to ride, then all pro golfers had to be given cart keys.
Murray was nearly blind and often referred to himself as handicapped, yet he wrote that the ADA "is meant to give the disabled an opportunity. It's not meant to give them an advantage. If it is, it's unconstitutional."
So that's what was before the Supreme Court, far more than just Casey and his cart.
This whole thing has been a public relations nightmare for the PGA Tour, which came across as a heartless heavy. In truth, the tour was between a rock and a hard place, between compassion for Martin and its idea of fair competition. It was never anything personal, and commissioner Tim Finchem repeated yesterday what he has said on many occasions, that the tour "has the highest respect and admiration for Casey Martin."
But the tour also has a fear. Jack Nicklaus' career declined because of a bum hip. Fuzzy Zoeller and many others suffer from nagging back ailments. Davis Love is fighting a neck problem that could be spinal in nature and might arguably be exacerbated by walking miles uphill, downhill, sidehill every day. Scott Verplank is diabetic, and exercise shoots his blood sugar readings onto a roller-coaster. Not that any of these gentlemen would ask for a cart - Nicklaus, for one, would rather crawl - but you can see where we're heading here.
Who is to say for sure what is an injury/illness and what is a disability? Sure, Casey Martin is an easy call. But what about the next guy who brings a note from the doctor? And ask yourself how hard it is to get one of those the next time you see someone pull into a handicap parking space, dangle a permit from the rear-view mirror, then sprint into a store.
Perhaps the PGA Tour should just park a bunch of carts next to the first tee and let anyone who wants one jump in. It may come to that.
Exhibit No. 1 for golf purists has long been the 1964 U.S. Open, when a dehydrated, almost delirious Ken Venturi played the last nine holes of a 36-hole round with a doctor standing by outside the ropes in the event that he collapsed on a frightfully hot and humid day. Would he have still won had an opponent, with the OK to ride because of some disability, been less affected by the oppressive weather and able to card a lower score?
The PGA Tour entered this fight, and lost it, with some legitimate concerns. Constitutional scholars followed it with legitimate interest as the scope of the ADA was further clarified.
But face it, there was never any serious question who would win. The Supreme Court was not going to author a majority decision that would be interpreted as slamming a door in the face of disabled Americans.
The justices made the only decision they could. And, in the case of Casey Martin vs. the PGA Tour, they made the right decision. As for future cases, we'll wait and see.
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