Going down swinging

Posted: Thursday, May 31, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post:

Nobody forced the PGA Tour to fight all the way to the Supreme Court to prevent a disabled pro golfer named Casey Martin from using a cart in professional competition. Martin is a talented golfer who also has a rare circulatory condition that makes it painful and dangerous for him to walk an entire course something the PGA Tour claims is an essential feature of the rules of its tournaments. An athlete capable of playing golf at an elite level, yet disabled enough to keep him from complying with one relatively marginal rule of play, is a rare phenomenon; an accommodation would hardly have compromised any sacred principle. The PGA Tour, however, chose to provoke a needless confrontation, forcing the Supreme Court to answer what Justice Antonin Scalia called the "incredibly difficult and incredibly silly question" of whether "someone riding around a golf course from shot to shot (is) really a golfer."

The court held this week, by a 7 to 2 vote, that Martin is indeed a golfer and that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that he be permitted to use a cart. Writing for the court, Justice John Paul Stevens declared that the walking rule was not an essential part of the game and that it would not alter the fundamental character of professional golf for Martin to get an exemption from it.

Justice Scalia, in dissent, responded that the rules of sports are necessarily arbitrary, and that subjecting such rules to judicial review invites a rush of insane litigation: "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." Who is to say which rules are essential?

The majority intended its decision to be a narrow one without broad implications for other ADA cases. We hope the case will turn out that way - as an oddity, a correction of one isolated decision by the PGA Tour. If, however, Justice Scalia proves correct and this case proves to be a burdensome precedent that injects judicial scrutiny into sports rule-making, we will have the PGA Tour and its lack of common sense to thank.

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