PGA, not SCOTUS, Should Have Decided the Casey Martin Case

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sport. n. The relief of boredom by trying to do some gratuitous physical thing — such as whacking a human head around a field from horseback, tossing a telephone pole, kicking a ball through a "goal," running around an oval track — better than someone else can do precisely the same thing. Golf, a silly and exacting game, involves clubbing a tiny ball around an immense green space such that the ball falls, seriatim, into eighteen little holes in the ground.

Competitive means comparative — one athlete's performance against another's, under exactly the same conditions. In tennis, the service court must be the same size for me as for you. We switch sides every other game in order to neutralize such factors as wind or angle of sun. Without the lines and the net and the score, we are in the realm of the merely recreational (just knocking the ball around, which may be invigorating and aerobic, but is not competition). Or we are in the realm of kindergarten, where every child gets a medal and self-esteem abounds, except among kids who spot the con.

No one thinks that Casey Martin is working a con. He has a physical disability — Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, a degenerative circulatory disorder that obstructs the flow of blood from the right leg back to the heart. Walking the course is painful to Martin. It is valiant, and unusual, that a man suffering from such a condition should be a professional golfer. As Dr. Johnson said, the wonder is not that he does it well, but that he does it at all.

The PGA Tour says that golfers in competition must walk the course, not ride golf carts from hole to hole. Competitive golf, like other sports, means that everyone does the same thing. But this is also America, which means that everyone sues.

Now the Supreme Court, interpreting the Americans with Disabilities Act, has ruled, 7-2, in Martin's favor. Unlike every other player, Martin may ride a golf cart from hole to hole in PGA competition. The court's majority opinion stated that the question of how players get from hole to hole — walking or by cart — is not fundamental to the game. Other golfers disagree. Jack Nicklaus is grumbling loudly.

The court tried to erect a fence around the decision, suggesting it was a one-time ruling, not an all-purpose loophole through which any athlete with a problem could amend the rules of the game to gain advantage. That seemed naive, as if the justices had suddenly become ignorant of human nature and the predatory reflexes of American lawyers. USA Today wondered, "Could a diabetic tennis player be entitled to extra rest every time she changes sides...Would [the Supreme Court] standard give a blind long-distance runner the right to be tethered to another person who would guide the blind runner around a race course — and potentially serve as a valuable pacesetter?" I expect that in ten years, all professional golfers will travel from hole to hole by helicopter.

The Supreme Court's kindly opinion raises a simpler question: Since when does the Supreme Court dictate the rules of golf, or any other game?

Answer: Since every aspect of life in America became political, and therefore subject to litigation.

No one would accuse professional sports in America of being innocent. But still they give us, now and then, glimpses of beauty and excellence, and the bracing spectacle of something difficult done well, without cheats or excuses. Sports have satisfyingly real outcomes, they have winners and losers. Sports should be free of drugs, free of politics, and free of victims.

Insofar as the court's decision affects Casey Martin, it represents a generous, courteous waiver of the rules in favor of a brave competitor. But that gesture should have been made — if at all — by the PGA Tour, as custodian of its own rules, and not by the Supreme Court, which has no business administering courtesies in someone else's territory.

It's important to find a congenial game, whose rules may work in your favor. Babe Ruth, for example, was impaired by bad personal habits and a beer gut. Hitting home runs allowed him to trot around the bases rather than sprinting.

That was cunning in the old style.

The new cunning is to litigate, which leads to misbegotten struggles. A few years ago, a doctoral candidate whose PhD thesis was rejected sued a large Eastern university, charging discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Her disability, she told the court, was that she is not smart; the university should provide tutors and writing coaches to help her to earn the degree.

The great trick in life is not to get a lawyer, but to find the game that is right for you.