May/June, 1998


The Media EDGE Department

Casey Martin:
The Jackie Robinson of Disability?

photo of golf ballBy W. Carol Cleigh

W. Carol Cleigh is a freelance writer and activist.

Casey Martin is a young man who plays golf. By all accounts, he is a decent, personable individual with a killer swing. He is also a person with a disability. Because of a birth anomaly called Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, Martin can't walk the several miles it takes to "walk the course." That meant that he couldn't play in the PGA (Professional Golfers Association) because "walking the course" was required. In February Martin won an ADA suit against the PGA, gaining the right to use a golf cart as a reasonable accommodation. How this happened - and the reaction of press and public - is fascinating.

Martin has been golfing for quite a while. While he was in college, his leg became bad enough that physicians warned he would lose it if he continued to walk. He asked the National Collegiate Athletic Association for permission to use a golf cart in tournaments. The coaches voted unanimously to allow it. He was the only player who used one. NCAA golf didn't suffer from it and Martin got to keep his leg and improve his game.

Then he graduated. Like his Stanford teammate, Tiger Woods, Martin wanted to play in the pros. He asked the PGA for the same accommodation he'd had in the NCAA. Likely he expected them to agree as the NCAA had done. Instead, he ran headlong into able-ist prejudice. He could have ended his golf career and gone home. Fortunately, he didn't. Martin chose to fight. He hired an attorney and took on the PGA in federal court.

The first thing he had to do was to identify himself as person with a disability, perhaps not the easiest thing, psychologically. But it was not difficult legally, given that he will lose his leg soon enough. Much sooner if he tried "walking the course."

The PGA never challenged Martin's disability status. But in a move almost comical, the PGA claimed that their tournaments were "private" and therefore exempt from ADA. When you invite the nation via television, "private" is not a word that springs to mind.

This attempt was the PGA's undoing with the public: it was the same one they had used less than a decade ago to exclude African-Americans. Since Tiger Woods is the PGA's latest darling, the parallel became obvious.

As a group that certifies people, like college testing services, the PGA must make reasonable accommodation for disabled people. The PGA claimed that they should be allowed to make the rules for golf without government interference; that we should trust them not to discriminate unnecessarily. Yet they discriminated against African-Americans for decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, racially integrating professional sports.

The PGA's last-ditch argument was that "walking the course" was an essential part of the game at the pro level. This could only be justified through doublespeak, since PGA tournaments already allow golf carts - the Senior Circuit allows anyone who wants one to use a cart. In many pro tournaments, carts are used to speed up play.

Parallels to recent racial prejudice and doublespeak made PGA's ableist bias clear. This makes the case significant to the Disability Nation. It is an opportunity to chip away at the mindset that considers disability an individual problem, while considering race and gender discrimination group matters.

The difference is crucial: If problems are individual, then solutions should aim to "fix" or "help" the individual. If problems are systemic, then the solution must be to change the system. The Martin case gave us an opportunity to show non-disabled Americans the prejudice we see every day.

We've been fighting for years to convince the non-disabled majority that our problems are systemic. Then here comes Casey Martin, an individual without apparent group affiliation, who by suing the right entity at the right time, captured public consciousness. Should we resent that? In a word, no. Martin did what we want our people to do. He identified as a person with a disability, saw prejudice as the problem, sought a remedy and enforced his rights in court. He did this in the full glare of national media. A daunting task for any 25-year-old.

Some in the media took this as an opportunity to attack the ADA. These pieces all contain some variation of the theme that Martin wanting to play pro golf is crazy; therefore the ADA is crazy. The D. R. Nation must resist such denigration of our basic civil rights - far too many believe that the ADA is extreme or only protects "drunks and one-eyed cops." When such things appear, they should invite immediate, powerful response. No other minority group would be so disparaged; the press knows there'd be mountains of protests. They should know that about us as well.

But unlike many disability stories, national media treated this as a major news story. When the decision was announced, ABC Evening News went live to Oregon. Ted Koppel did an entire Nightline on it. That it made the main news rather than being relegated to the human interest ghetto is a small move in the right direction.

The innate American sense of fair play seemed to spring to Martin's side. One internet poll by a golfing magazine showed 78 percent of the respondents supporting him - impressive, given most Americans don't know the ADA exists. A few reporters supported Martin, too.

However, neither the non-disabled public nor the press seemed to grasp the minority-group concept. Instead, most took the position that Martin should be an "exception" because he was a "nice kid." (They d probably want an asterisk beside it if he set a record.)

None examined implications for persons with disabilities in other fields. Nor did they interview any of us.

Despite deeply mixed media messages, Casey Martin's success can be a public relations victory for the D. R. Nation if we embrace him.

Will Martin become the Jackie Robinson of disability? Will he play successfully for years to come? Time will tell. For now he'll play on the Nike tour (one step below the "real" pro tour). If he wins enough, or a sponsor invites him, he'll advance to the pro circuit. Most who try for pro status don't make it. But he has a chance and the next person with a disability will have a precedent. Whether he wins at golf or not, Martin has won his most important victory - pride and belief in himself as a person with a disability, not in spite of it.

Not "getting it"
Right decision,wrong reason

. . . [T]he PGA Tour is never going to be inundated with applications from afflicted [sic] walkers who possess professional swings because such skills are rare in the population at large. An exception for Casey Martin will not hurt the sport. It will make the PGA look wise and compassionate. . . . [emphasis added].

Editorial "A Smart Cart for the PGA"

in the January 18 New York Times.


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