News & Events

Print/PDF this page:

Print Friendly and PDF

Share this page:

"Martin Case Raises Issues on Its Impact" A News Analysis by Marcia Chambers, Tutor in Law


"Martin Case Raises Issues on Its Impact" A News Analysis by Marcia Chambers, Tutor in Law

Note: This article originally appeared in "The New York Times."

Hal Sutton, a veteran P.G.A. Tour player, wondered aloud the other day whether Casey Martin's United States Supreme Court victory last Tuesday would spur other golfers to get a golf cart, too. Any number of players have bad backs, he observed, himself included.

Sutton's reaction zeroed in on the court's major conclusion in rendering its decision: walking is not fundamental to professional tournament play, even though through centuries it has been taken for granted as an integral part of the game. If walking is not fundamental, and the physically disabled are entitled to a cart as a "reasonable accommodation" to their disability, then who besides Casey Martin qualifies?

It turns out very few. The legal threshold is high. The walking rule must be waived, says the court, for a medically qualified applicant. Would Freddie Couples or Hal Sutton and their bad backs qualify under the Americans With Disabilities Act? Unless their bad backs come about as a result of a permanent disability, probably not.

The 1990 act, considered by legal experts the most extensive civil rights legislation to pass Congress since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, has been keenly felt in the worlds of architecture, transportation and employment. With Martin's lawsuit, the act now takes its place in the world of professional sport.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote the majority opinion in the 7-2 decision, distinguished between types of candidates: "Martin's claim thus differs from one that might be asserted by players with less serious afflictions that make walking the course uncomfortable or difficult, but not beyond their capacity. In such cases, an accommodation might be reasonable but not necessary."

It is this language that gave Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem the belief that the Tour's walking rule is preserved.

The disabilities act is clear that the physical or mental disability the person suffers must be one that, in its words, "substantially limits one or more of such person's major life activities." These activities include seeing, hearing, walking, working.

Stephen F. Gold, an expert on the disabilities act at the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia, has followed closely the Martin case since the golfer filed suit in 1997. Martin's permanent circulatory disorder, Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, is covered under the act. Gold said that the act also covers multiple sclerosis, AIDS, blindness, deafness, diabetes and epilepsy, to name a few. Pregnancy is not covered because it is not a permanent condition.

Martin is unique in that he achieved top professional status despite a debilitating permanent disability.

"This is a narrow fact-based opinion, and I believe it will have zero impact on the game," Gold said. "The P.G.A. Tour will not roll over. They will distinguish Casey Martin from others. The opinion preserves the walking function."

Finchem said Martin might well turn out to be the only person on the Tour to whom it applied. The implication is that few others would ever qualify medically.

Roy L. Reardon, Martin's lawyer, said those predicting scores of cases coming over the transom involving all sports would be disappointed. "I don't think that will come to pass," he said.

Tom Ostertag, senior vice president and general counsel of Major League Baseball, agrees. The Martin ruling, he said, "is narrowly tailored to the facts of the case, and it is very difficult to imagine any applicability to baseball."

But Americans are litigious, particularly when it comes to its children and its amateur sports leagues. Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissent, said the majority opinion would generate litigation. "The court guarantees that future cases of this sort will have to be decided on the basis of individualized factual findings," he wrote. "Which means that future cases of this sort will be numerous, and a rich source of lucrative litigation."

It is rare for a court, let alone the Supreme Court, to land in the middle of a rules dispute between a player and a professional sports organization. In the past, courts have been reluctant to intervene, preferring to leave decisions to the experts who oversee sports organizations.

It's too early to tell how far the ruling's reach may be. For example, will it be applied differently in those professional team sports governed by collective bargaining agreements where the agreement between labor and management sets limits on individual bargaining? And what is the impact for all those thousands of amateur teams and leagues?

Gary F. Roberts, director of sports law programs at Tulane University, said, "Governing bodies are going to have to look more carefully at these kinds of situations, and not simply assume they run the sport and that they can do whatever they want."

Martin, remembering how the Tour initially ignored his medical records, had his say: "Before an institution like the P.G.A. Tour just automatically knocks down someone's desire for an accommodation, they might have to think twice."

The court seems to have wanted to be compassionate ? to help an obviously gifted but disabled golfer live his dream ? and they found a way to do it. Whether it makes good law or creates an administrative nightmare, as Scalia's dissent suggests, remains to be seen.