Opinion: Justin Thomas’ use of homophobic slur shows how far sports still has to go

If you want to understand how strong the poison of homophobia still is in sports, and how it remains a potent yet still sometimes unaddressed malignancy, look no further than golfer Justin Thomas, an ugly slur, and a fashion company.

What happened with Thomas shows how in the post-George Floyd era, the country is immeasurably better at blunt discussions about race, but we are still infantile, with numerous blind spots, when it comes to homophobia.

At the Sentry Tournament of Champions on Jan. 9, Thomas, the No. 3 ranked golfer in the world, used an anti-gay slur after missing a putt. The slur was caught on a live mic.

"There's no excuse," he said in an interview after his round was complete. "I'm an adult. I'm a grown man. There's absolutely no reason for me to say anything like that. It's terrible. I'm extremely embarrassed. It's not who I am, it's not the kind of person I am but unfortunately I did it and I have to own up to it and I'm very apologetic."

The problem with Thomas saying that's not who he is, unfortunately, is that's exactly who he is right now. That doesn't mean he will always be this way. It doesn't mean he can't change. But no one blurts out that type of ugliness without it being a core part of who they are.

Cores are not always made of a hardened substance. They can slightly shift, like molten lava, and reform into something better. But for now, for right now, this is exactly who Thomas is.

Justin Thomas reacts on the 18th green during the third round of the Sentry Tournament Of Champions on Jan. 9, 2021 in Kapalua, Hawaii. (Photo: Cliff Hawkins, Getty Images)

One of his sponsors, Ralph Lauren, dropped Thomas about a week after the incident.

"We are disheartened by Mr. Thomas’s recent language, which is entirely inconsistent with our values," the company said in a statement. "While we acknowledge that he has apologized and recognizes the severity of his words, he is a paid ambassador of our brand and his actions conflict with the inclusive culture that we strive to uphold. In reflecting on the responsibility we have to all of our stakeholders, we have decided to discontinue our sponsorship of Mr. Thomas at this time. 

"As we make this decision, our hope is that Mr. Thomas does the hard and necessary work in order to partner with us again – truly examining this incident, learning, growing, and ultimately using his platform to promote inclusion."

It's good that Ralph Lauren severed ties and condemned what Thomas said. But it's this part of the statement that's problematic: "…our hope is that Mr. Thomas does the hard and necessary work in order to partner with us again…"

This makes the severing of ties seem more like a publicity stunt than a sincere gesture. No sincere gesture would already allow the possibility of a return to the company just days after such a disgusting incident.

No one is saying that Thomas should never have another sponsorship. Or that he should live with this forever. That's not the point.

Ralph Lauren's statement demonstrates how sports, and key parts of the sports machine, still don't take homophobia as seriously as they should, and certainly not as serious as racism.

There's a good chance that if Thomas used the N-word live on a mic, he'd have been suspended indefinitely. Even in these harrowing and ugly times of domestic terrorism and almost 400,000 dead from a pandemic, the conversations about race would have still been extensive and forward-facing. It would have gotten far more attention.

There's simply no way Ralph Lauren could have gotten away with – we hate what he did, but the door is still open for him to come back – if Thomas screamed a racial slur. The excoriation of Ralph Lauren would have been nuclear.

There's still a lack of understanding, even by straight allies, about the amount of damage that's done to openly gay people (particularly young ones).

Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization, tweeted after the incident: "This type of discriminatory language causes real harm, and there is no place for it in sports. We must continue to work for greater inclusion and acceptance. That's how we all ultimately will win."

The tour's reaction is tepid as well. Condemning Thomas' actions is fine. Fining him, sure. But why is he still allowed to play?

It's because elements of professional golf, like so much of the rest of society, doesn't view homophobia with the same sense of disgust as racism when they are both on equal planes of depravity.

Thomas is a cautionary tale for golf, advertisers and really, the entire country.

When it comes to beating homophobia, we have a hell of a lot to learn.

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