WASHINGTON - Taking on an unaccustomed role as a rules referee for pro sports, the Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide the legality of the PGA Tour's refusal to let Casey Martin, a disabled golfer, ride a cart so he can play in its tournaments.
The outcome of the case, expected next spring, will settle whether the federal law that bars discrimination against the disabled applies to competitors in all pro sports, and thus whether pro events must relax their rules to accommodate disabled athletes.
Next year's round of PGA tournaments will be well under way before the court decides the case. In the meantime, the tour said yesterday, it will allow Martin to continue to use a cart as long as the case is before the court. His use of a cart ordinarily would violate a tour rule requiring every golfer to walk throughout a tournament.
The tour said in a statement that it "believes that the law on this issue requires the clarification that a Supreme Court decision will now provide." It noted that lower courts have reached conflicting rulings on that issue.
In March, the tour lost a case to Martin, when a federal appeals court based in San Francisco ruled that the Americans with disabilities act applies to pro sports events at public places, like golf courses. A federal appeals court based in Chicago has ruled just the opposite, in a case involving another pro golfer, Ford Olinger, who is also disabled.
The court in the Martin case said the Disabilities Act requires event sponsors to ease rules to accommodate disabled athletes, so long as the rule involved is not one that is crucial to competition in that particular sport.
The appeals court said PGA events would not be altered in a significant way if golfers like Martin were allowed to ride. "Walking is not essential to the generalized game of golf," the court said.
Martin won a court order to play with the use of a cart, beginning with the U.S. Open in 1998. His case has been unfolding in the courts since then.
Martin has a disorder of his circulation system, resulting in a malformation of his right leg that causes pain so severe that he cannot walk for extended periods of time. He is able to get out of a cart to make his shots during tournaments.
Taking the case to the Supreme Court, the PGA Tour argued that the lower-court ruling requiring that Martin receive a rules break is of "potentially momentous" significance to pro sports.
"It is unprecedented," its appeal contended, "for a federal court to order that a professional athlete be allowed to compete without adhering to the full set of rules appliable to other competitors."
The Tour argued that Congress, in passing the disability rights law, in no way intended to force pro sports event sponsors to waive their rules so that disabled athletes could take part.
The PGA, together with the U.S. Golf Association, which is involved in the Olinger case, sponsors most of the high-level men's pro golf tournaments in the United States. The USGA also runs the U.S. Women's Open.
Since 1986, about a dozen requests to allow the use of carts during the U.S. Open have been filed, but only Martin has ever ridden a cart in that tournament, with a court's permission.