Two kinds of courage graced the courtroom during Martin v. PGA
Tour, the precedent-setting civil rights trial that wound up
last week in Eugene, Ore. Casey Martin, the 25-year-old disabled
golfer who sued the Tour for the right to use a motorized cart
in its competitions, emerged a winner in every sense of the
word. A symbol of achievement in the face of adversity, he joins
an admittedly limited pantheon of real sports heroes.
A different brand of courage stiffened the backbone of Martin's
principal--and principled--adversary, PGA Tour commissioner Tim
Finchem. It was Finchem who had to play the man without a heart.
It was Finchem who had to advance the dubious proposition that
golf is a game rooted in athleticism. And it was Finchem who had
to take the witness stand and testify against a young man he
would prefer to champion.
Why did Finchem have to do these things? Because the Americans
with Disabilities Act, passed by Congress in 1990, has pushed
sports enterprises like Finchem's to the mouth of a very dark
cave. Wild hypotheses abound: basketball players with
spring-loaded shoes; quarterbacks with sign-language
interpreters; guide dogs curling up at the feet of big league
umpires. If the ADA doesn't require sports to implement any of
these silly scenarios--and it does not--it has invited a rash of
litigation that is testing the best minds in sports and law.
It was Finchem's bad luck to field the first high-profile case
that questions that most sacrosanct of sports values: the
right--no, the duty--to play by unbiased and uniform rules. (As
Finchem put it, "When you change the rules for one player in an
athletic sport, you are inherently changing the landscape of
that sport.") Adding to Finchem's quandary, federal magistrate
Tom Coffin had already ruled that the Tour, as an entertainment
entity, is a public accommodation and thus covered by the ADA
not just in spectator areas, but also inside the ropes. That
ruling, more than Coffin's order to give Martin a cart, alarms
the governing bodies of sports.
Finchem also had to carry water for the golfers of the PGA and
Nike tours, who believe that weakening the walking rule might
influence the outcome of Tour events. When the gates of change
open, a worried Arnold Palmer testified, "we may not have a Tour
at all. It may disappear."
It was in this overheated atmosphere that the commissioner took
the stand on Feb. 10. Insisting, as he had from the start, that
the case was not about Martin, Finchem pleaded the cause of
organized sports. "I accept his argument," he said of Martin's
claim that he could not play without a cart. "I understand where
he's coming from...[but] as difficult as it is, we have to go
past that and recognize the impact on the sport."
In a trial awash with metaphors, it was easy to picture Finchem
as the golfer alone in the woods, calling a penalty on himself
because his ball moved. The Tour's obstinacy has cost it dearly
in public esteem, and Finchem's own reputation has plummeted.
Newspaper columnists portray him as a callous CEO.
Politicians--politicians!--denounce his organization as a club
for greedy, self-centered athletes.
Pity. Martin v. PGA Tour was not a struggle between the forces
of light and darkness, but rather a collision of two parties
pursuing important principles. Judge Coffin, delivering his
verdict, praised both sides for their reasoned arguments and
singled out Finchem's testimony for its acumen. "Quite frankly,"
said the nongolfing jurist, "I don't see how anyone can fault
the PGA Tour for its stand." The Martins themselves refused to
vilify Finchem. "The thing that's awkward for me," said King
Martin, Casey's father, "is that I totally understand the other
point of view."
Where does that leave Finchem? Still looking up the wrong end of
a public relations blunderbuss. While the Tour appeals Coffin's
ruling, the commissioner must go on taking bullets for the USGA,
the PGA of America, the LPGA, the Masters, all the mini-tours
that require walking and every other body in the U.S. that
stages athletic competitions. Like the golfer in the woods, he
must choose the more painful option and hold his head higher for
having done so.
You don't have to agree with Finchem about tournament golf and
walking, but you shouldn't minimize his courage, either.
penalty on himself.