Commentary

Could Martin's case have been avoided?

Updated: May 22, 2011, 10:23 AM ET
By William Weinbaum | ESPN

A lawyer by training, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was in his fourth year on the job when Casey Martin sued the tour after it turned down his 1997 request, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), to use a golf cart in competition. By the time the Supreme Court ruled in Martin's favor in 2001, the tour had lost in three different courts and taken a beating in the court of public opinion.

"I don't have any regrets," Finchem said recently. "I think we handled it right. I think we had to make the case we made."

The stars -- namely Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer -- were aligned with the tour and most of its members in opposition to granting a cart to Martin.

To a man, players and officials said their stance was not at all against Martin, but all for asserting walking as fundamental to golf at its highest level and ensuring no exceptions to tour rules for all competitors. Furthermore, they said, allowing a cart for any player would mean granting an unfair advantage and opening a Pandora's box of potential cart requests from players with varying degrees of ailments.

"The tour didn't do it to be difficult or obstreperous, but to demonstrate it would maintain the integrity of the sport's competitions," said attorney William Maledon, who represented the tour in the District Court trial and in the appeal. "As difficult as this was for everybody, this truly was a matter of principle."

Before Martin's attorney, William Wiswall, filed suit, he said he sent the tour a videotape and other evidence of Martin's disability, a debilitating and incurable circulatory disease called Klippel Trenaunay Weber syndrome that made walking the golf course perilous and prohibitive.

"I was astounded by the severity of the condition," Wiswall said of what the video showed in Martin's right leg. "The leg actually changes color -- from white to gray -- when the blood tries to push its way up."

"We were trying to get Casey his ride," he added. "We didn't think [the tour] realized how severe Casey's condition was and if they saw what was on the tape, [we hoped] they would, and would feel differently."

The PGA Tour returned the materials, explaining that in adhering to its policy and because it interpreted the ADA to be inapplicable, it wouldn't consider the specifics of Martin's condition.

Martha Walters, who is now an associate justice of the Oregon Supreme Court and another former attorney for Martin, acknowledged the legal arguments on both sides, but said the tour's conclusions were specious.

"You don't change the rules," Walters said. "You write down Casey's condition and limitations and agree to accommodate his limitations. The [ADA-mandated] individual assessment [of a disability] is only to enable that person to participate."

From a legal perspective, Maledon noted, "You have to put yourself in that time frame of 10 years ago -- there was no precedent in the pro sports context [under the ADA, enacted in 1990]."

In Finchem's view, "there was no way to reconcile" the tour's position with Martin's.

Martin and his lawyers maintained that the former Stanford All-American was at risk for a fracture that could necessitate an amputation. They said he had to constantly wear two rubber compression stockings to prevent the pooling of blood and extreme swelling, and that a cart would not give him an advantage over fellow competitors who faced fatigue from walking the course.

At the 1998 trial in federal district court, Martin's attorneys introduced into evidence the video that had been sent to the tour before they filed suit. According to Wiswall, once the tape was seen in court, "the case was over on whether a cart would give Casey an advantage."

The district court ruled in Martin's favor, ordering the tour to grant him a cart in competition. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling. The tour then appealed to the Supreme Court.

"It's unfortunate that a person like Casey, a superb golfer, couldn't be given what the ADA guarantees," said Roy Reardon, who argued Martin's case before the Supreme Court. "He did not want special treatment, he just wanted to play and compete."

In delivering the 7-2 majority opinion for Martin, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens cited the tour's failure to consider evidence of Martin's disability and said the tour's walking rule was ''at best peripheral'' and ''not an indispensable feature'' of golf at any level. He added the rule might therefore be waived in individual cases without a "fundamental alteration."

Stevens also said that under the ADA, golfers who would qualify for an exemption were those for whom walking the course was ''beyond their capacity,'' not simply uncomfortable or difficult.

On May 29, 2001, the day the decision was announced, the news traveled to the protagonist -- from Washington, D.C., to Eugene, Ore. -- via an unexpected source.

"I remember I was at home in the morning, I was not totally up and I got this call, and an interesting number came up on the caller ID," said Martin, a native of Eugene who is now the head coach of the University of Oregon's men's golf team.

"What I wanted to convey to him was, 'you prevailed, you won this thing, and good luck to you in your career,'" said the person who broke the news.

That person was Finchem, who said, "The whole country felt and I felt that he had prevailed. This is not a situation where the court would've ended up where it did, but for his perseverance."

"Huge relief," is the feeling Martin said he experienced.

The substance of the court's decision wasn't only favorable for Martin, said Finchem, who described the ruling as a "win-win."

"My reading of the opinion led me to conclude that the court was trying to have its cake and eat it, too -- 'give Casey a cart, but don't let it change fundamentally what the sport's all about.'"

"I think he's accurate in that it was a 'win-win,' because it was, as the ADA intended, an individual thing," Martin said. "Certainly a win for me and a win for the tour in the standpoint that they didn't have to wholesale change their rules."

But Walters said the tour overlooked the obvious in pursuing a different outcome from the four-year legal ordeal.

"Was it worth it for them to win it? No," Walters said. "All it would've done was stop someone great from playing."

And if the tour had granted Martin a cart at the start?

"Everything would've been the same, except he would've been on their side," Walters said.

William Weinbaum is an ESPN Enterprise Unit Producer. ESPN Correspondent Shelley Smith contributed to this report.

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