Under the ADA, does a basketball team have to accomodate a player’s disabilities?

January 8th, 2013

The Houston Rockets drafted Royce White in the 2012 draft. However, White, who has some mental health issues that give him serious anxiety from flying, has refused to travel with the team. The team tried to assign him to a D-League team, but he refused. Now he is being suspended.

In a recent interview, White suggested that the Rockets are required to accomodate his disability under the ADA.

ROYCE WHITE: Well, there’s two pieces to it. One is that, you know, under ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] law, anybody who has a disability in the work place, and if your job has over 50 employees, your job is required to accommodate you and the accommodation does need to be reasonable. That is stated in the law. The protocol here is just that, you know, when a medical situation arises, dealing with the mental-health-related symptoms, that a medical professional take the lead on how to move forward. Whether that be not moving at all, whether that be moving slow, whether that be moving at 100 miles an hour. Somebody that’s qualified and trained to give medical advice is the person who is at the lead of that. And I think that’s very logical and sensible. And to allow somebody like Daryl Morey, for example, to take the lead on that situation with having no medical training, is not only illogical but at the bare minimum it’s very unsafe.

Is there any case law about a professional athlete seeking a reasonable accommodation under the ADA?  If the Rockets cut White, could he bring suit under the ADA? It would seem that his refusal to play would be the reason for the suspension, though his refusal to play was based on the team’s inability to accomodate his disability? Would any court hold that it is a reasonable accommodation to allow an NBA player with mental health issues an alternate work schedule (not travelling with the team by plane, only playing home games, telecommuting)? Here are White’s comments on travelling schedules:

ROYCE WHITE: So we said “Hey, OK, listen. How are we going to rectify that?” OK, well, we’re going to allow, well we asked to be allowed to bus to the games that are, you know, close enough. And when I’m on the road, let’s say we flew to Detroit and we had a game in Milwaukee. OK, well, we could bus when we get to Detroit from Milwaukee and if then we have to fly back or if you know, we could drive back. Or, whatever we can do that’s feasible. That whole negotiation took a while to do. A number of reasons. (a) is, who is going to pay for that, and that became an issue. The Rockets finally agreed that it does make sense for them to pick up that cost because travel requirements are something that teams do and first class travel requirements are something that also is in the CBA. So they agreed to that and then then there was also putting it in writing. Putting it in writing was a tough thing and the NBA didn’t want them to do that and then they came back a day later and said that they could do it. And it was a big weird process where again, protocol was obviously absent. There’s no precedent to work off so everybody’s really confused. And we finally got that squared away. And I started off the season, we were traveling, some other things were happening, and then some more stressful situations. I started having migraines and I said, “Hey listen, let’s go back to the protocol now. I mean, let’s, where we at with the protocol?” That’s when it started to get a little tense.

I always wonder about the application of employment laws to professional sports. I mean, what if a female brings suit under Title VII alleging that the NFL refused to consider her because of her gender.

Update: Several commenters on Twitter reminded me of PGA Tour v. Martin, where the Supreme Court held that the ADA applied to the PGA, and they could not deny Casey Martin reasonable accommodations (using a cart).

Justice Scalia was not persuaded in dissent:

Complaints about this case are not “properly directed to Congress,” ante, at 27-28, n. 51. They are properly directed to this Court’s Kafkaesque determination that professional sports organizations, and the fields they rent for their exhibitions, are “places of public accommodation” to the competing athletes, and the athletes themselves “customers” of the organization that pays them; its Alice in Wonderland determination that there are such things as judicially determinable “essential” and “nonessential” rules of a made-up game; and its Animal Farm determination that fairness and the ADA mean that everyone gets to play by individualized rules which will assure that no one’s lack of ability (or at least no one’s lack of ability so pronounced that it amounts to a disability) will be a handicap. The year was 2001, and “everybody was finally equal.” K. Vonnegut, Harrison Bergeron, in Animal Farm and Related Readings 129 (1997).