The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
So begins "Harrison Bergeron," a brilliant story in Kurt Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House, which was published in 1961 and will stay in print forever.
1961. The golfer Casey Martin wouldn't be born for another dozen years. The Americans with Disabilities Act was still 29 years off. And not for 37 more years would a federal magistrate take it upon himself to rewrite the rules of the PGA Tour.
Golfer Casey Martin
In 1961, it hadn't occurred to most Americans that every dispute or misfortune should be dragged into court. It hadn't dawned on them that the way to help people overcome their handicaps was to pass laws mandating double standards. In 1961, most Americans agreed with their president, a man who suffered from Addison's disease and near-crippling back pain, when he observed, "Life is unfair." Back then, one had to be a novelist to dream up a world in which differences between the gifted and the not-so-gifted were forcibly neutralized so that everyone could enjoy "equal opportunity."
George and Hazel couldn't think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn't think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every 20 seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.
Maybe walking plays a "central role" in tournament championship golf, as the PGA Tour commissioner insists. Or maybe the PGA's objection to letting Casey Martin ride to the ball was stupid and self-righteous. My impression is that Martin undergoes a more grueling ordeal even in a cart than most golfers do on foot.
But my opinion on the subject is irrelevant. US Magistrate Thomas Coffin's opinion should have been irrelevant, too. The rules of play in golf game are no business of the law. Martin may have had good reason to be infuriated by the pettiness of the PGA brass, but for bad sportsmanship, nothing they did equals what he did: stomping into court and demanding that the government give him what he wanted. This is worse than spitting at an umpire or choking a coach. Because of Martin, all of professional sports is now threatened by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the most misbegotten federal law in decades.
The jokes have already begun. "What's next," asked a Libertarian Party press release issued after the magistrate issued his ruling, "federally mandated stilts so . . . midgets can play professional basketball? Should Roger Clemens be ordered by the court to throw slower fastballs to nearsighted batters?"
Don't laugh. Although the ADA requires no more than "reasonable accommodations" of the disabled, it has been invoked to mandate increasingly elaborate and expensive adjustments to compensate for ever more preposterous "disabilities."
Example: To assist its hearing-impaired students, a California test-preparation firm offered them written scripts of class presentations. Instead of thanks, it got a lawsuit — and was forced to hire a sign-language interpreter at a cost of up to $9,000 per course.
Example: Dade County, Florida, was compelled to provide a wheelchair ramp for its single nude beach to make it easier for the handicapped to sunbathe naked. The short ramp cost $18,500 to build, and its construction had to be approved by four government agencies.
Example: A federal judge ruled in 1993 that blind people may not be excluded from jury duty — despite their inability to see evidence or observe a witness's demeanor.
"Thanks to the ADA, the federal government . . . can tell you what kind of fertilizer to use on your lawn because a neighbor may suffer from a 'disability' called 'multiple chemical sensitivity," wrote Andrew Ferguson, a former White House staffer, in 1995. "It can tell you what tone of voice to use toward a co-worker because he may suffer from a nervous disorder that disables him when he is addressed too harshly."
There is no end to the alleged disabilities for which the ADA can require special treatment. Employers may be forced to put up with, rather than fire, a worker who is chronically late, inattentive, or hostile; after all, the behavior may be due to depression, anxiety, or some personality "disorder." Likewise students: Vague "disorders" don't mean they have to study harder or take careful notes — it means they get personal tutors, private exam rooms, and twice as much time on tests.
Mandatory softballs for nearsighted batters? Sounds ludicrous now. But just give the disability lawyers a few years to work on it.
What Martin wanted may have been reasonable. Calling in the government to override the PGA wasn't. It was unsportsmanlike, and it will have consequences far more serious than a golf cart. This was the first time a judge changed the rules of a sport to accommodate a player who couldn't keep up. It won't be the last.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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