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Americans with Disabilities Act

Professional golf tournament covered by the ADA - PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, 121 S.Ct. 1879 (2001)

This is an important Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) case because it expands the ADA into one area of professional sports, and because it potentially broadens what it means to be "otherwise qualified."  At the same time, it is a fact driven opinion that turns on the special nature of PGA professional golf tournaments and professional golf in general.  Professional golf is unusual in that it is a competition between individuals, rather than teams, sharing this characteristic with professional tennis but few other big ticket professional sports.  It is perhaps unique among professional sports in that it demands great physical skills but only limited endurance, resembling billiards more than tennis in its physical demands.  This is illustrated by the original plaintiff in this case, Marin, who can shoot excellent golf but who has a chronic illness that prevents him from walking the golf course and requires that he use a golf cart.

PGA TOUR, Inc., a nonprofit entity formed in 1968, sponsors and cosponsors professional golf tournaments conducted on three annual tours. About 200 golfers participate in the PGA TOUR; about 170 in the NIKE TOUR; and about 100 in the SENIOR PGA TOUR. PGA TOUR and NIKE TOUR tournaments typically are 4-day events, played on courses leased and operated by petitioner. The entire field usually competes in two 18-hole rounds played on Thursday and Friday; those who survive the "cut" play on Saturday and Sunday and receive prize money in amounts determined by their aggregate scores for all four rounds. The revenues generated by television, admissions, concessions, and contributions from cosponsors amount to about $300 million a year, much of which is distributed in prize money.

There are various ways of gaining entry into particular tours. For example, a player who wins three NIKE TOUR events in the same year, or is among the top-15 money winners on that tour, earns the right to play in the PGA TOUR. Additionally, a golfer may obtain a spot in an official tournament through successfully competing in "open" qualifying rounds, which are conducted the week before each tournament. Most participants, however, earn playing privileges in the PGA TOUR or NIKE TOUR by way of a three-stage qualifying tournament known as the "Q-School."  Any member of the public may enter the Q-School by paying a $3,000 entry fee and submitting two letters of reference from, among others, PGA TOUR or NIKE TOUR members. The $3,000 entry fee covers the players' greens fees and the cost of golf carts, which are permitted during the first two stages, but which have been prohibited during the third stage since 1997. Each year, over a thousand contestants compete in the first stage, which consists of four 18-hole rounds at different locations. Approximately half of them make it to the second stage, which also includes 72 holes. Around 168 players survive the second stage and advance to the final one, where they compete over 108 holes. Of those finalists, about a fourth qualify for membership in the PGA TOUR, and the rest gain membership in the NIKE TOUR. The significance of making it into either tour is illuminated by the fact that there are about 25 million golfers in the country.

The "Q-School" process has special legal significance because it brings the PGA under the public accommodations provisions of the ADA, which have the broadest application and provide the most protection.  It also limits the application of this case, in that most professional team sports do not have any significant open tryout process and much more closely resemble traditional employers.  The ADA still applies to them, but not as broadly.  Having established that the PGA is covered by the public accommodation provisions of the ADA, the critical legal issue becomes whether walking the course is such a key part of golf that cannot be eliminated without changing the fundamental nature of the game.  This is where the facts potentially narrow the scope of this opinion.  Until 1997, a cart could be used in all phases of the PGA tour.  Since 1997, a cart can be used in all but the final phase.  A cart may also be used in many other golf tournaments.  These facts make it impossible to argue that that walking the course is fundamental to the game of golf.  Instead, the PGA argues that the issue is assuring that all competitors face the same conditions, i.e., since the other plays face the rigor of walking the course, it would put Martin at an unfair advantage to use a cart.  Unfortunately for the PGA, several of the judges, some of whom are quite elderly, play golf, and it is noted in the opinion that walking a five mile course over a period of several hours is not very physically taxing for what are claimed to be athletes.  There was also testimony that walking the course gave the golfers an advantage by giving them better information on the layout and nature of the course, and several professional golfers prefer to walk the course.

In perhaps the most important point in the ruling, the court stressed that the ADA demands that each individual's case be considered on its own facts and not governed by blanket rules.  Having found that the PGA was covered by the ADA, and that walking the course was not fundamental to golf, the court examined Martin's personal circumstances.  The court found that Martin's illness put him under physical and mental stress that more than compensated for his not having to endure the stress of walking the course, and thus he would not be at an advantage.  This is an important ruling because it recognizes that there are more considerations than just the fundamental nature of the sport that can be considered.  It could, for example, limit what types of special golfing equipment might be allowed as an accommodation.  It stresses that each individual's demands must be evaluated, and that the player asking for accommodation must be prepared to show why this will not create an unfair advantage.  While not at issue in this case, it also raises the issue of danger to others. For example, a wheelchair bound basketball player would be a significant hazard to other players in a traditional game of basketball.  More fundamentally, it is hard to find a comparable issue to golf carts in other professional sports.  Most are so physically demanding that anyone with a significant disability will not competitive enough to raise the issue.  It might have some impact on amateur sports, especially children's sports, but the requirement that the accommodation not undermine the fundamental nature of the sport is very limiting.

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