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Level the Playing Field

Yesterday, while checking up on how the Red Sox were faring during the annual Patriots’ Day game, I noticed that Bostonsports.com was updating the progress of the Boston Marathon, including the results of the wheelchair division. That brought to mind this recent Washington Post article about a 17-year-old Paralympic wheelchair racer in Maryland, who has sued twice to force the state to treat her the same as all athletes at the state high school track and field championships. She wants to be entered in a specially-mandated wheelchair division in her event, the 1600 meter race, while racing against able-bodied individuals (if I understand the issue correctly – the article isn’t perfectly clear). Her finish -- first place by definition in her division – would count towards the overall team competition. Presumably, she doesn’t consider herself a true teammate unless her results are scored with the regular team. Other schools naturally object to what they consider a non-competitive bonus for her high school.

The article notes that while the girl considers her equal participation a civil right; many track athletes and coaches consider it an unnecessary threat to the integrity of their sport. The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association contends that it already has exceeded its legal obligations by adding eight nonscoring wheelchair events to this year’s track championships. Regular competitors worry about their safety running beside someone wheeling along at 20 miles an hour – a problem with all road-racing events, although efforts are usually made to segregate the competitors.

This calls to mind the flap a few years back about Casey Martin, a professional golfer (and former college teammate of Tiger Woods) who had a degenerative condition in his right leg. Casey sued the PGA Tour under the Americans with Disability Act for the right to use a golf cart during competitive events. Virtually the entire professional golf establishment – Tiger Woods included – opposed Martin, despite the obvious sympathies. They argued that the tour had the right to set the terms of athletic competition and that walking was an integral and demanding part of the game. If you don’t think so, try walking 36 holes (10 or so miles) on a hilly course during the height of the summer. The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling 7-2 in favor of Martin. The PGA’s practical case was weakened by the fact that golf carts are allowed on the Champions (Senior) Tour, although most golfers won’t use them as a matter of principle. Its moral case was weakened by the long-standing history of racial discrimination among the nation’s country clubs. The PGA Tour itself, astonishingly, had a “Caucasians Only” clause through 1961.

That said, I thought, and think, that as a matter of law and common sense, the Court was dead wrong. Let’s hope the courts in Maryland are smarter. For the record, as things turned out, Casey Martin did not enjoy much professional success and no other individual, handicapped or just a plain old tired golfer, has attempted to take advantage of the Martin precedent. (At least not on the PGA Tour – I’m not certain about the USGA.)

My point? As steroid suspect Barry Bonds approaches Hank Aaron’s home run record, we will find yet another opportunity to debate what exactly constitutes a level playing field in sports.

Categories > Sports

Discussions - 4 Comments

Though not generally a follower of any kind of sport, I recall a conversation in college during which I was nearly persuaded that my neglect of sports was as close to a moral failing as a thing might get without actually being one. Sports, it was argued, offered us the last great and unmolested vestige for the exhibition of excellence. It was the only place in our modern world where man might witness a kind of grace and beauty that was unadulterated by base considerations stemming from soft logic and ill-directed compassion. It was the only place where one might truly expect to see the pure triumph of the best. Apparently I have no reason, anymore, to be ashamed for my lack of interest in the subject.

I disagree re the Martin case. Golf Pros have to walk and that ain't easy, but it isn't all that hard either. they don't even carry their own clubs. The fact is walking is a nonessential part of Golf. Casey Martin could play Golf, he just couldn't walk very far or long because of a very real disability. Fortunately Congress had passed legislation which mandates that employers make reasonable concessions on nonessentials for folks like Martin.

Ryan

The fact is walking is a nonessential part of Golf.

Augusta is 4.23+ miles long. That doesn't take into account any zigzagging one might have to do for an errant shot. I dont' know about you, but after walking 4.23 miles, I would think fatigue in my legs would affect my ability to drive off the 18th tee.

Julie

Undesireable elements exists, yet athletics still remain the "last great and unmolested vestige for the exhibition of excellence." Watch Kobe when he's on. Or Lebron. Witness the prowess of Mark Beuhrle (as well as the defense behind him!) during his no-hitter lastnight for Chicago. Olympic Sprinters, skaters, swimmers, marathoners, footballers, etc -- all push their bodies (and minds) to limits you and I might not even imagine.

I think things like the Special Olympics, Para-Games, etc offer disabled folks the ability to compete, and as your standard run-of-the-mill free-market Libertarian, you already know what I think about competition.

But, at the end of the day - I'll take the real thing, and I'll continue to watch fanatically that last great display of excellence.

Shawn, you are a dumbhead. Do you think I don't know how long a golf course can be? I'll repeat my point. walking is a nonessential part of Golf. PGA golfers should have to walk, UNLESS they can't walk because of a real documented disability. Casey Martin, because one of his leg's was rapdily and irreversibly deteriorating, was more disadvantaged driving off the 18th than the healthy guys on the stroll.

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