A Personal Victory? or a Wake-Up Call for the Movement?
By Mary Johnson
"The Casey Martin Gets A Cart case is being billed as a sports story, a legal story -- pretty much anything but what it really is," wrote Louisville Courier Journal sports columnist Pat Forde the day after the U. S. Supreme Court handed down its 7-2 decision that the PGA Tour could not discriminate against golfer Casey Martin.
PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem was quick to tell reporters waiting for his comment that the ruling "clearly focused on Casey Martin and Casey Martin only," that the Court "makes it quite clear" that it would likely "not apply to any other competitor." The case was about one man's medical condition, in other words -- nothing more.
Most who covered the ruling saw things very much as Finchem did-- not that they were in agreement with Finchem's contention that Casey should have lost the case and Finchem's PGA won it, but that Casey's was an isolated, personal situation: a medical problem.
This is how we understand disabled peoples' problems in this country, more than a decade after the ADA's passage: as medical problems, not ones of discrimination.
While the ruling vindicated Martin, it does not seem to be changing the media's understanding. Reporters and columnists say the Court has been compassionate to Martin. He "deserved to win" because he was courageous. More than one writer has called him "a sympathetic figure"; those displeased with the decision quickly add that they're nonetheless "sympathetic to Martin's condition." To Washington Post sports writer Sally Jenkins, who wrote that Martin's story was "sweet," Justice Antonin Scalia's dissenting opinion strikes "a real note of clarity": Scalia says the court was exercising "benevolent compassion" -- (compassion that, he said, "the law does not place it in our power to impose").
Martin's story was "one about inspiration, not litigation," about a "courageous young man, ... a gleaming example of how a handicap can be overcome," wrote Orlando Sentinel Sports Columnist Mike Bianchi. He was a "uniquely courageous competitor"; a "symbol of courage," "courageous man playing despite a disability." He "should be allowed to ride," wrote the Omaha World-Herald's Tom Shatel, "because he's not a fraud, and he's not hurting the game. He's honoring it with his courage."
Those who thought to consider the larger implications seemed not to know where to go with them. The ADA's "essential concepts remain surprisingly undefined," wrote The New York Times's Linda Greenhouse. The case raised "hard issues" about "what constitutes a disability," ran a headline in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
If there was a theme to those articles that saw in the case more than a personal victory for Martin, it was that "just anybody" might now be able to persuade the court to let them in on something they didn't deserve. The case would open a Pandora's box. "Wheelchair bound" (as author John Feinstein put it) basketball players would "sue the NBA for entry," "gimpy baseball players [would] ask for motorized carts to run the bases."
If Martin were allowed to ride in a cart, what precedent would it set? "Who else should be afforded the same consideration? Golfers with arthritis? Diabetics? Asthmatics?" The Arizona Republic's David Cassstevens was in fact making fun of those who said this, but Orlando Sentinel Sports columnist David Whitely was deadly serious: There were "other Martins out there" that until now had "just accepted their handicaps as part of the game," he wrote.
"Scott Verplank struggles through every round with an insulin pump. Isn't diabetes a handicap? Should we be less sympathetic to a golfer with a slipped disk than a circulatory problem? Fred Couples and others play with creaky backs, and they have the X-rays to prove it." There was nothing other than per pressure keeping them from demanding a cart," he wrote. What about people with sprained ankles? "Are accidents worth less than congenital problems? Who's to decide? You think other golfers won't turn their ailments into a federal case? Martin did. There are millions of dollars at stake. That's a lot of chum for America's ocean of legal sharks," fumed Whitely.
It seems that all the disaffected pundits can think to do is to grouse that the ADA will now likely apply to "everybody." It might surprise them to realize that if, in fact, someone is being discriminated against on the basis of disabilty, then, yes, that is exactly what the ADA will do: it will apply to that someone -- anyone, in fact, who faces discrimination on the basis of disability.
Of the hundreds of news stories, sports columns and editorials on the decision, only the St. Louis Post's editorial board seemed to understand that the PGA Tour V. Martin decision was simply a case of the ADA working exactly as it was supposed to work, that the "essence of the ADA" is about "making reasonable modifications that do not fundamentally alter the undertaking -- in this case, making golf shots."
"No individual shall be discriminated against on the basis of disability in the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations of any place of public accommodation by any person who owns, leases (or leases to), or operates a place of public accommodation," says the law. It is clear and specific, based on that section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which forbids places of public accommodation to discriminate on the basis of race.
Nearly a decade after the Americans with Disabilities Act's mandate for nondiscrimination in places of public accommodation took effect in 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court has told golf courses that, yes, they really must obey the law, just like they were told to a decade ago.
It's not surprising the Justices reached that conclusion, since golf courses are specifically listed in the law itself, one of the "places of exercise or recreation," the last in a long list of "places of public accommodation" the law delineated so that no one would doubt that Congress meant business when it passed the Act.
How many other places of public accommodation are going to need a wake-up call from the courts before they begin to obey the ADA?
What about your neighborhood bakery, grocery store, clothing store, hardware store, shopping center? Can you get into them if you have problems walking? What about your nearby laundromat, dry-cleaner, bank, barber shop, beauty shop, travel service, shoe repair service, funeral parlor, gas station? They're all listed in the law, too. People should be asking these questions now. It's past time to do so.
When it comes to places of public accommodation, the Americans with Disabilities Act is clearly not vague. Its detailed clarity has now saved the day for Casey Martin. It can do the same for millions more of us -- protect us from discrimination "on the basis of disability" whether we're trying to shop, attend to business, go to the theater, dinner, a ball game, a health club or, yes, even play golf. That is, after all, exactly what Congress intended.
Mary Johnson is editor of Ragged Edge magazine.
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