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This Is Not About Justin Thomas

This Is Not About Justin Thomas

A timely perspective on the voices we listen to during a teaching moment.

Connor Laubenstein

Two weeks ago, the PGA TOUR kicked off its 2021 season at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. In the middle of the third round, the broadcast flipped to Justin Thomas as he squared up to a makeable short putt. He missed. In frustration, Thomas walked over to tap in what was left of his effort, and under his breath uttered a homophobic slur directed at himself. The hot broadcast microphone picked it up for live audiences around the world to hear. Viewers quickly took to Twitter and other networks to discuss what had just happened. As has widely been reported, Ralph Lauren has since announced that they will discontinue its partnership with Thomas as his clothing sponsor. 

Upon walking off the course, just four strokes off the lead heading into the final round, Thomas was informed that he’d used the derogatory language—or, at least that he’d been caught. He immediately went on air to apologize for the harm he caused, and vowed to do better. 

In the days that followed, the story was picked up by major news outlets like CNN, Huffington Post, and NBC. The Golf Channel has since recapped the incident as well, with leading industry voices like Jaime Diaz, Eamon Lynch, and Brandel Chamblee sharing their thoughts on the ten-time TOUR winner’s subsequent reaction and apology.

“Justin Thomas is suffering,” said Diaz. “The pain is going to be well worth the reward,” he continued, speaking to how Thomas will learn from the situation. “When Justin Thomas put his head on his pillow last night, he was probably a better man than when he woke up,” Chamblee added. Lynch, himeslf a gay man, made a point to speak on persistent stereotypes and their effects on golf’s reputation. Chamblee, however, was quick to put the emphasis back on the timbre of Thomas’ voice in his press conference.

A focus like this on Thomas’ apology—a focus shared across the ensuing media coverage of the incident—wrongly centers Justin Thomas as the subject we ought to be thinking about. The aftermath of incidents like this one should be less about Thomas and more about the communities who have been affected by what people like him said. Above all, we should be focusing on passing the microphone to people who were hurt by the utterance Thomas made. We should be focusing on young people — on teaching them that actions like this are intolerable and have no place in our game. Centering Thomas and “what he must be going through” in the coverage of this incident undermines the very people he disrespected in the first place. Further, it detrimentally assumes that those communities—in this case, the LGBTQ+ community—aren’t even in the audience or a constituency of the sport. It neglects their perspective altogether.

Spoken or not, there were communities in pain last week. There were people made to feel unwelcome in golf by someone at the highest level of the game. This doesn’t reflect solely on Justin Thomas; it reflects on the whole golf community. A collective education doesn’t come by creating excuses, pushing incidents aside, or focusing on the feelings of a transgressor, but by understanding and dismantling the power structures that inflict trauma on real people in our sport. And it comes from listening to and supporting underrepresented perspectives so that we know how best to dismantle those structures.

At that point, retribution should come in. Customarily, the consequences of Thomas’ actions from the PGA TOUR would be settled behind closed doors. Those consequences should instead be made public-facing, so that Thomas can be held accountable, and fellow pros know the real ramifications of mistakes like this one.

But more importantly, we need to see that Thomas and others who use language like this are learning and taking active steps toward making the golf community a more welcoming and accepting space for everyone. That they are focusing on outwardly righting their wrongs rather than minimizing them, or hoping that through silence they fall back into the background. Increased transparency will hopefully ensure that, should something like this happen again, an offender on tour will face more severe consequences than Thomas has. 

It’s a shame when the necessary dialogue and community reckoning that result from actions like Thomas’ are shrugged off as attempts to cancel somebody in a position of power. The PGA TOUR and the golf community at large need to treat displays of prejudice seriously, and take active, public steps to amend and prevent pain. Most importantly, they need to show that new communities are welcome in golf by lending them an ear in the first place.

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View Comments (17)
  • It’s so sad that such a great golfer commit such a violent crime against an oppressed group. He should never be allowed to have a family or income again. This type of violence is the reason the alt right won the election last term. If you don’t agree you’re part of the problem. That word is just as bad as the events of WWII. I can’t believe ANY of his sponsors kept him. What a disappointment. I agree with you; we should hold a public trial against him and seize his assets for the public good – deplatform him despite the fact that he apologized and is working on it. One screw up should basically be met with deadly force. Duh.

    • I can’t tell by this comment if you’re making fun of the article or actually want to cause harm to someone who made a ridiculously dumb/hurtful/ignorant statement. Of which should be addressed by the pga, fined/dq-ed or at minimum some sort of comparable punishment to other sports (not that it’s enough but at least better than what’s happened so far).

      What you’re suggesting, if serious, is troubling. If we have no room for mistakes then we have no room to forgive. If we have no room to forgive then how the hell do we grow and help drive change? How are we human without those things? Either way, inclusion is about including everyone…the ignorant too.

      MLK said it best, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” AND “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.”

    • Hello! Could you point out where in the article the author suggests seizing Thomas’ assets? Where does the author suggest barring him from having a family? Further, where does the author suggest using deadly force l? That’s obviously a disproportionate response to what happened.

      I’m kidding, you and I both know you’re willfully misreading this article. It’s too bad, I had hoped that more people were buying into RGC’s All Are Welcome philosophy.

      • Seizing the assets, barring family and income, and deadly force were my ideas. All are welcome. Except those who make one mistake one time. They are not welcome. It is clear that RLX agrees. One mistake means we sever ties. I only propose we do so more radically to show our allegiance to oppressed people. Deadly force is hyperbole, I only mean we should take this much more seriously. If one mistake gets people shamed and disavowed, it seems we already lack the forgiveness and “all are welcome” philosophy. I’m just taking it to its logical conclusion. Toss him out with the MAGA trash and inaugurate a new PGA Golden Boy. If “it reflects on the whole golf community” (stated in article) then how can we allow him to stay? It must either ONLY reflect on him as a person and we therefore sever ties with him, OR it reflects on the golf community as a whole and we ought to still sever ties with him to show that the community is in support of oppressed groups. IMO we should just rid ourselves of all the current golfers who fall short, nix the traditional aspects of golf and start over. It is the tradition that creates such a hostile environment for othered people groups.

      • Thank you, Robert. This is possibly the best thing ever said to me. The reaction to this one incident has been ridiculous.

    • Aw, you poor baby. Did someone hurt your feelings and make your friend Thomas face consequence for his actions :(? How will he ever survive this!? Maybe with his millions of dollars and incredible golfing talent? Golf is one of the most exclusive and stringent sports in the world, often not allowing non-collared shirts at courses. If one can get in trouble for such an insignificant action as wearing a t-shirt, a professional should be held accountable for using a slur in a derogatory manner. And any non member of the LGBT+ community should shut up and let the experts tell us what action is or isn’t equitable to the situation. Hyperbolized analogies don’t make for good satire, but it does make it abundantly clear your emotional response to the situation is lacking any real understand of the context and meaning of what happened.

      I hope you’re little snowflake complex can survive watching the rest of the PGA season this year! Go scream into a pillow you big dumb idiot

  • My thought from this is why haven’t the people who know JT, or others who might regularly use these slurs, with whatever intention , call him out when they are together on the golf course?

    JT plays with Tiger and other pros, even with his own Dad, and I’m sure they have heard him say it before

    It goes to the pint of being an ally. Help your friends or fellow golfers understand that you don’t think it’s right for them to use this language

    Slowly it will fade from the lexicon

  • First world problem. The vitriol and response to this has been absurd. Thomas apologized, immediately & profusely, but was still cancelled by Polo. The golfing press continued to harp on this day after day until news of Tiger’s fifth back surgery broke. Now, the press is all over that – beating another dead horse. Meanwhile the equipment manufacturers are coming out with their new drivers – now slightly smaller than my 1968 VW and about a tenth the cost. But no one from the golf media is talking about how this equipment is ruining the game. I wonder why?

    • Country turned upside down. The Left says a word or words can be the same thing as violence. (The First Amendment says otherwise – at least for now.) An ANTIFA man was prosecuted for stabbing someone in the gut. For his defense he claims that his act of stabbing someone was protected speech. Common sense says otherwise. Speech is speech. Violence is violence. And when a man apologizes for saying something TO HIMSELF, you accept his apology, forgive him and move on.

    • Agree 100%… I’ve got gay friends that call themselves fag… sometimes, joking or other situations. I’m bold but I don’t need anyone take my defense each time that someone talk about bolds…All the tour players should start saying fagg… each time they miss a putt, let’s see what the PGA does.

  • To the ignorant people in the comments: Would you have the same response if it had been the N word?

    It’s no different.

    Have some decency.

  • I agree that this isn’t about Justin Thomas, he is rather a conduit to create discussion and growth from. The PGA has not done much to address the BLM reckoning we are having as a society, and this in my opinion has a similar feel to it. Golf historically has been very guarded to change. What has drawn me to RGC is it’s vision on inclusion and the desire to learn more about the game of golf and more importantly about myself. I am a white, upper class, straight, late 30’s individual who at times has felt uncomfortable/uneasy on a golf course. I know that if i feel that way, i am not alone in that sentiment. EAL’s sincerity and unwavering commitment to creating this “all are welcome” mentality is breath of fresh air to the game. Each of us visit this site, listen to the podcasts, or watch the RGC team create content on YouTube because we are golfers and because we have a desire to learn. It is up to us collectively as a whole to create the change this simple game of golf needs. Should Justin Thomas lose sponsorship deals & be publicly shamed for what he said, that is up for debate. In my opinion what isn’t up for debate is as members of this Random Golf Club, is our silence when someone uses any derogatory language. We must be the change we wish to see.
    Thank you for continuing to crank out great, thought provoking content RGC team.

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