We often think of the ADA’s reach as focused on employment and public accommodations such as hotels and shopping centers. It is, therefore, easy to forget that it also impacts activities. This includes public meetings, conventions—and sporting events.
One of the most well-known sports and disability cases is that of professional golfer Casey Martin. Prior to 2001, the PGA Tour required all tournament participants to walk and barred the use of golf carts. Martin suffers from a degenerative condition that affected his ability to walk that prevented him from competing in PGA events. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, held that the PGA’s policy violated the requirements of the ADA for public accommodations and ordered that Martin must be permitted to use a cart as a public accommodation. Although Martin never qualified for the PGA Tour, this case opened the door to significant questions about the intersection of the ADA and sports. More recently, professional basketball player Royce White has engaged in a very public dispute with his employer, the NBA’s Houston Rockets, over White’s unwillingness to accept an assignment to one of Houston’s farm clubs. White argues that the assignment does not provide adequate support for his disability (i.e. severe anxiety).
So what does this all mean for recreational and private sporting events? Private clubs, such as golf clubs, generally remain outside the coverage of the ADA with respect to their regular operation. An important question arises, however, when private clubs host competitions, tournaments, or events that are open to the public (either as spectators or participants). In these circumstances, the ADA can operate to mandate a facility take steps to ensure equal access. This can include ensuring that the facility has adequate parking and other access for disabled spectators, as well as that participants are not denied access based on a failure to reasonably accommodate a disability. For example, a swim club that hosts team competitions may be required to make disability modifications, such as employing alternate starting devices for deaf participants, or waiving requirements for “two hand touch” finishes for one armed swimmers. These are not meant to be all inclusive, but rather provide a sample for the kind of modifications that may be necessary.
Clubs and facilities that host or run athletic competitions must be mindful of the ADA’s reach. This is particularly true for private clubs and other facilities that generally fall outside of the ADA in their day-to-day operation. This includes direct liability, as well as liability from acting as a host or sponsor for such events. Ultimately, taking the time to assess liability risks and obtain appropriate legal advice early on can help avoid litigation and other legal headaches down the road.