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.
Man’s best friend and man’s best game…what could go wrong?