A judge ruled Wednesday that Casey Martin can ride a golf cart on the PGA Tour, a landmark victory in the first case invoking federal disabilities laws to compete in a professional sport.
When U.S. Magistrate Thomas Coffin announced his ruling, Martin smiled slightly, nodded his head while looking at his parents, then turned to his lawyers and said: "We won."
Coffin ruled that a golf course during a tournament is a place of public accommodation under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.
He said Martin's lawyers proved the 25-year-old golfer is disabled and entitled to a reasonable accommodation - which would include a cart.
Martin's lawsuit sought to force the PGA Tour to accommodate his rare circulatory disorder that makes it painful and even dangerous to walk. His doctors say too much stress on his withered right leg could cause it to break, and may force amputation.
Coffin said the PGA Tour had failed to meet the burden of proof on its contention that allowing Martin to ride a cart would fundamentally alter the sport.
Tour officials contended giving Martin a cart would not only give him an unfair advantage, but also would take away the fundamental aspect of athleticism and stamina that walking brings to top-flight tournament golf.
Martin's case generated a national debate over the rights of the disabled to compete in professional sports, and an outpouring of support for him. He was featured in a Nike "I Can" campaign and won the support of former presidential candidate Bob Dole.
In the PGA Tour's summation, its lawyer warned Coffin against allowing the strong public sympathy for Martin to cloud his judgment.
"I know, your honor, there is a substantial amount of public sympathy for Mr. Martin," lawyer William Maledon said. "I sympathize with Mr. Martin as well."
"That is not what this case is about," he said. "The right thing to do would be to decide this case based on the applicable law, not in accordance with public opinion."
Coffin has already ruled twice in Martin's favor, granting a preliminary injunction allowing him to ride a cart in the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament last December and denying the PGA Tour's motion to throw out the case last month.
Riding a cart, Martin won the Nike Tour's Lakeland, Fla., event last month, generating an outpouring of public support.
Pointing to Martin's atrophied, stick of leg, Walters said: "You cannot look at that leg and believe for one instant that Casey Martin would have a competitive advantage."
The NCAA made accommodation for Martin by allowing him to ride in a cart while playing for Stanford, and the PGA Tour allows professionals to ride carts in the early round of its qualifying tournament, so there should be no problem allowing Martin to ride at golf's highest level, Walters said.
Walters, an expert in the ADA, said the PGA Tour is not the first business that felt the law would rastically change its operations.
"When Congress adopted the ADA, it decided change would have to happen," she said, adding that the tour behaves like it "does not have to follow the rules."
"Persons with disabilities will continue to be locked out of jobs and careers if we don't give them affirmative accommodation," she said.
Maledon countered that Martin's specific disability and similar circumstances in college golf have nothing to do with the way the case should be decided.
"Your honor has to focus on the specific privilege or accommodation being sought," Maledon told the judge. "If you go beyond that, I respectfully submit you commit error."
Maledon compared allowing Martin to ride a cart to moving the three-point line for some players in the NBA, which would fundamentally alter competition.
Martin was born with Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome. He does not have the vein that runs along the bone in his lower right leg. Instead, blood flows back to his heart through a jumble of veins near the surface. The condition makes it painful for him to walk and could cause his leg to break. If it breaks, it may have to be amputated.
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