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.