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Jewish World Review June 7, 2001 / 17 Sivan, 5761

Paul Campos

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Martin ruling only further handicaps us -- CASEY MARTIN'S lawyers have convinced the Supreme Court to force the Professional Golf Association to allow Martin to use a golf cart in events overseen by the PGA.

Martin, who has a degenerative circulatory condition that makes it difficult for him to walk, claimed that the Americans With Disabilities Act required the PGA to grant him an exemption from the rule banning the use of carts, and by a 7-2 vote the court agreed.

Martin's case is a depressing reminder of the rampant legalization of American life.

In a saner society, the PGA might well have granted Martin -- whose particular condition is very rare -- a one-time exemption from its rules. But we can be fairly sure the PGA's lawyers made it clear to the organization that, in America today, such an ad hoc exemption would be potentially disastrous.

Those lawyers are aware that a voluntary exception to the rules for the benefit of a relatively sympathetic figure such as Martin could well have been the first step down the dreaded slippery legal slope toward encouraging dozens of similar claims from golfers with bad backs, diabetes, flat feet and so on. In the wake of the court's ruling, such claims are now probably inevitable (and not only in regard to golf: who doubts that we will soon be reading about ADA actions filed by white men who can't jump?), but at least the PGA can still claim that it has consistently objected to bending its rules.

Martin's case also highlights the difficulties inherent in the concept of "a level playing field." Americans very much want to make life fair, which is an admirable impulse, but a deeply neurotic one if taken at all seriously. It is instructive that we commonly use a metaphor from the world of sports to express the desire for equality.

At their best sports are about treating everybody equally, by applying the same rules to all the competitors. But of course this is just one possible meaning of the word equality.

In another sense, competitive sports illustrate how there can never be any such thing as a level playing field. Is it fair that genetics have granted Casey Martin -- and anybody else who plays professional golf -- advantages that make it utterly impossible for ordinary golfers to compete with him?

In this sense, almost all of the nation's golfers are burdened by disabilities that Martin and his tiny cohort of professional peers have escaped. All of which is to say that the very concept of a disability is fraught with potential dangers. Why, we might ask, should "reasonable accommodations" be made for those who have trouble walking or hearing or seeing, but not for those who have less than average hand-eye coordination or poor impulse control or marginal analytic skills?

It may seem cruel to deny Martin an accommodation, but what those who favor granting such accommodations fail to consider is that, at some point, eliminating one form of unfairness merely creates other forms. After all, if Martin manages to qualify for the regular PGA tour he will be taking the spot of a golfer who we can be certain would not have lost his eligibility if his own particular weaknesses in regard to playing the game of golf -- his "disabilities" -- had been accommodated as Martin's have been.

Like so many laws, the Americans With Disabilities Act was a product of good intentions. And, to some extent, those intentions deserved to be transformed into public policy. But to bureaucratize good intentions is inevitably to transform them into something else.

Casey Martin started out as an almost wholly sympathetic figure. Now he has become yet another example of the excessive legalization of American life. If he were living in America today, Ebenezer Scrooge would still be buying Tiny Tim's Christmas turkey -- but he would be doing so under court order.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, Paul Campos