Disabilities law at core of Martin's golf-cart suit

Supreme Court ponders application to pro sports

January 18, 2001|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court, appearing reluctant to referee the rules of pro sports, reacted skeptically yesterday to a plea that it order the PGA Tour to let disabled golfer Casey Martin use a cart during its tournaments.

Most of the justices seemed willing to treat a golf tournament as an activity covered by the federal law that bars discrimination against the disabled but not to use that law to force significant changes in the way golf is played professionally.

At issue in the case the justices heard yesterday is the PGA Tour's long-followed "walking" rule: No golfer at one of its tournaments is allowed to use a cart to get around the course.

Martin, who first qualified to play on the tour four years ago, has played in tour events while using a cart because he has won two lower court rulings under the disabilities law.

Those courts have ruled that the tour must accommodate him during tournaments, because he suffers from a circulatory disorder that causes severe pain and the loss of use of his right leg when he walks for extended periods or distances.

Martin, who attended the hearing yesterday, continues to play on the tour. In his first event this season, the Tucson Open, he did not make the cut. In an interview yesterday on ESPN, he said his pro career would probably be over if the court did not uphold his access to a cart or if the tour does not change its rule.

The PGA Tour argues in its appeal to the justices that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not apply to pro sports, but that even if it did, pro tournaments and leagues should not have to change the way their games are played to allow a disabled pro to compete.

The tour appeared to make headway with the court yesterday on the second point, but not on the first.

Justice David H. Souter seemed to be speaking for several members of the court when he suggested that the court needed to set a standard on when to require accommodation for disabled athletes, but that the standard would not force any accommodation that fundamentally alters competition.

That is the legal formula the PGA Tour advocates. It would give leaders of pro sports wide discretion about what rules to enforce.

The court is expected to issue a ruling by early summer.

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