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.