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Casey Martin and The Golf War

golf ballWho would have ever thought to look at professional golf as an agent of cultural change? Yet in the past year Tiger Woods and Casey Martin have forced many Americans to face two of their most deep seeded cultural prejudices through their play on the professional links. This has been somewhat surprising considering the legacy of the PGA which has in the past relied heavily on its aging white wealthy male stars to keep its mostly white aging male audience watching and playing. The world of country clubs and polo cotton shirts have just never seemed all that accessible to young people let alone young black fans and athletes or people with disabilities. Yet within the past year, these two former college roommates from Stanford University have forever changed the face of this once quiet, reserved and traditional sport. Tiger Woods' victory at the PGA Maters forever shattered the notion that golf was a "white man's game," and months later Martin's victories on the Nike Tour and in the court room have changed challenged just what it means to be an athlete with a disability.

Martin is certainly not the first athlete to compete with a disability and will not be the last. In fact as early as the 1880s the ranks of professional baseball included an amputee pitcher. Yet at the same time the acceptance of athletes with disabilities in professional sports has always had a tenuous relationship with the "rule book." The major athletic leagues have always had mechanisms to keep players with disabilities off the court or field. Typically this came by way of "injured lists" or formal requirements which made accommodations or acceptance of an athlete with a disability or who had acquired a disability while playing unlikely. In this light it seems strange that disabilities haven't had a higher profile in professional athletics. Many of the greatest heroes of yesteryear now live with the permanent wounds of competition. Professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey players almost always leave their games with a permanent legacy of injuries and surgeries. In fact braces, casts and crutches are just as much athletic gear as gloves, pads and balls.

Yet rarely do athletes enter their professional careers with a disability as Martin has. There have a been a handful of notable media darlings who are praised for their "courage and perseverance" to make it to the professional ranks, without an arm, or hard of hearing. Former pitcher Jim Abbott comes to mind as one of those "great stories" who was famous before his first pitch because he had no lower right arm. Yet Abbott's story is interesting in light of Casey Martin's case. Everyone believed Abbott could only play in the American League because in the National League the rule book would require him to swing the bat and hit. This limited his choice of potential employers to only half the teams in Major League Baseball who are allowed to use the designated hitter. Clearly Abbott could pitch and had quite a career with the California Angels and New York Yankees—but only because of an artifact of the American League rule book.

Casey Martin is in a similar predicament. He has a congenital circulatory disorder called Klippel-Trenauunay-Weber syndrome which reduces the flow of blood to his right lower leg. This makes it painful for him to walk and eventually may require amputation. While Martin has yet to qualify to play on the PGA tour, everyone concedes that he will in the coming year. He actually won his first professional tournament on the Nike tour last year. It was here in the "minor leagues" of golf and at Stanford where he was initially granted exemptions for the use of a cart because everyone knew he could play the game. Yet his request for a similar special circumstances exclusion form the PGA circuit was initially denied. Thus Martin filed suit against the PGA under the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which would require the PGA to make "reasonable accommodations" to Martin if they were indeed his employer and source of well being.

The PGA has fought and continues to fight vigorously to deny Casey the use of a cart because as PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem, puts it, "To afford one player a competitive advantage over the rest of the field is neither fair nor wise, and it is inconsistent with a fundamental aspect of sport—that the playing field be level for all competitors." Yet this has been a difficult case to make after the NCAA and the Nike Tour previously disagreed with the PGA and allowed Casey to use a cart. The notion behind this approval was that Martin was a fundamentally sound and competitive golfer. He may have trouble walking, but then again no one has ever watched the likes of Tiger Woods or Arnold Palmer to see how well they walk. Golf is a game of strategy and shot making. Of technique, accuracy and skill. No one has ever won a PGA event based on their incredible walking abilities. Martin has never asked for anything like special clubs, balls or tees which would effect his ability to make shots and therefore be unfair. Instead Martin only asked for assistance getting to and from each shot. Casey Martin will likely lose at least part of his leg in the near future. Giving him a cart doesn't make it "easier" for him relative to the other golfers. Tiger Woods could walk hundreds of miles and he still is not going to feel what Martin does. In objective terms even with a cart, still Martin remains disadvantaged endurance wise by the very nature of his disability.

Yet the PGA has not seen this side of Martins predicament. Instead Finchem has made a number of statements which ring of the exclusionary tones which professional golf has been known for in the past. He has stated that, "The PGA tour strongly supports the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act. All tournament Players Clubs have handicap access, and all PGA Tour events provide adequate handicap access so that fans may enjoy Tour golf. In addition, PGA Tour events have raised a great deal of money over the years for organizations supporting handicapped persons." It seems, the PGA is perfectly willing to have a person with a disability come watch an event but actually trying to play on the tour is a different story. Perhaps Finchem was implying that Casey should just be comforted by the fact that the PGA is doing everything it can to raise money for what Finchem terms "the handicapped" instead of pushing so hard to actually play.

The PGA's somewhat exclusionary and paternalistic tone has drawn the criticism of several politicans in Washington who helped get the ADA passed. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, co-author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, feels that the PGA's "rules of the game" are just another way to systematically deny others the right to play. He said, "Rules and traditions that create barriers for people with disabilities are rules and traditions that must be changed." Former Senator Bob Dole has made similar comments. He said "In my view, it all comes down to a basic question of fairness. The PGA argues that giving Casey a cart would fundamentally alter the nature of its tournaments and give him an unfair advantage. I think the question is ‘Would it?' I don't believe so." Dole has made the recommendation that perhaps the PGA should allow Martin to walk nine holes instead of 18, or allow any player who wants to ride a cart to do so.

On February 11, with considerable political support behind him, Martin was able to convince a federal magistrate judge in Oregon to compel the PGA to offer him the use of a cart if and when he qualifies for the tour. U.S. Magistrate Thomas Coffin reasoned that Casey expends as much energy riding in a golf cart through a round as most players walking the full 18 holes. "What he as an individual is experiencing, given his condition, is easily greater than the fatigue factor induced in the able-bodied person walking the course." This marks the first occasion in which the ADA has been challenged and succeeded on an issue related to athletic participation. In order for the ruling to matter, Martin must either win three Nike events, finish in the top 15 Nike money winners at the end of the year, score among the top players in the PGA Tour's qualifying tournament or receive a sponsor's exemption to a tournament. Martin's initial reaction to the ruling was, "I just hope maybe five or 10 years from now, if I'm still able to play golf, the PGA Tour will just kind of lean back and scratch their heads and say: ‘Now why did we fight this guy?' I just want to be given a chance to play. Believe me, I wouldn't have done this if I'd have thought I had an advantage (with a cart)."

While accepting this initial setback, the PGA is not backing down in the long term. They are committed to spending whatever it takes to continue fighting Casey's provision for a cart. Commissioner Finchem said, "The PGA Tour is disappointed with the court's decision. As we have said from the outset of this lawsuit, we believe firmly in the basic premise of any sport, that one set of rules must be applied equally to all competitors. Additionally, we believe strongly in the central role walking plays for all competitors in tournament championship golf at the PGA Tour and Nike Tour levels." Yet it seems that in this case the provisions of the ADA outweigh the rules of the PGA. The courts and many professional golf fans do not seem to believe walking is so central to the PGA Tour.

Martin's attorney paraphrased this common sentiment by saying, "We're seeking an equal opportunity for Mr. Martin to demonstrate his abilities. Mr. Martin just needs a ride to the starting line. We're not asking for a 50-yard lead." Many sports journalists feel the same way. As Joe Frisaro of USFANS writes, "It baffles me how many confuse disability with injury. Some act like Martin is some finely conditioned athlete like Evander Holyfield, looking to cruise along in a cart to preserve energy. Martin's competitors still hold a tremendous advantage because they can condition their bodies in a way Martin can't. Martin, for example, can't condition his legs to generate extra power in his swing. His legs, after all, are deteriorating. Who knows how long his leg, or career, will hold up. A disabled golfer still is subject to injury, just like any other golfer. Casey Martin still can pull a back muscle. He still can get tired after four rounds. If need be, golf should make carts optional to all. The Seniors tour already does it, and no one complains. So precedent already exists to allow carts. Besides, wasn't Martin allowed to use a cart already, too?"

The eventual outcome of the Casey Martin story may define the future of athletes with disabilities. The Paralympic movement has already begun to take steps towards proposed integration with the Olympics while other sports are becoming more diversified every year. Not only have racial barriers been broken in almost every sport but gender barriers as well with the development of women's professional basketball and a gold-medal winning women's hockey team. Likewise, the NCAA is under considerable pressure to allow equal access and opportunities for athletic participation. In this respect Casey Martin's case may act as a precedent for non-competitive related rule changes which would provide greater access to qualified athletes. Clearly the next challenge is on appeal and eventually may reach the Supreme Court where the applicability of "reasonable accommodation" and the ADA apply to athletic employment. The tour is resorting to many of the same tactics that other exclusionary bodies have in the past to escape civil rights laws. They make the claim that The PGA is a private entity and therefore not subject to the provisions of the ADA, under the rule which excepts a "private clubs or establishments." The PGA lawyers said that "while plaintiff's golf skills and accomplishments may be notable, and perhaps even inspirational, Congress never intended the ADA to require a private organization such as the PGA Tour to change the rules of its tournaments to accommodate a would-be participant."

Its ironic that since Tiger and Casey have entered the game, that the PGA has never been hotter. It went from the approximate status of professional bowling to a headline story on ESPN and in the sports report. Golf has been without a Jordan or an Elway or a Griffey for the past decade. The sport was in decline, kids weren't as interested and suddenly with two new high profile golfers its become something for people who had never cared about golf before to talk about and follow. In the end the PGA will lose if they win the final case. How would the Dodgers look today if they had never promoted Jackie Robinson to the major leagues and instead run him out of baseball? Memo to Commissioner Finchem: The kid can play—and he can do it better than a lot of the "able-bodied" athletes on the tour and not because of a cart but because he's got a legitimate game.

by Mark Gray 


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