Justin Thomas Learned Something This Week. Everyone Else? Not So Much.

Justin Thomas doesn’t seem the type to read Oscar Wilde, but he might nevertheless wince at the painful truth in the Irish author’s acid observation that experience is the hardest teacher because it gives the exam first and the lesson afterward.

Barely two weeks in and 2021 is already delivering a tough (and expensive) lesson to the world No. 3, who was dumped by Ralph Lauren in the wake of an incident at the Sentry Tournament of Champions when he audibly muttered a homophobic slur after missing a putt.

The social media reaction to both the utterance and the fallout has been dispiritingly predictable, whether it’s those declaring (without evidence) that Thomas is a rampant bigot or those insisting (without empathy) that everyone is too damned sensitive. These are tediously reflexive positions that require neither contemplation nor even the full allocation of 280 Twitter characters.

There is a third path, obviously, but one seldom traveled in an era when corporations are eager to publicly distance themselves from hateful comments, when the concepts of education or rehabilitation are deemed riskier than censure and cord-cutting.

There are two immutable facts in this sorry mess: what Thomas said was as despicable as it was dumb, and Ralph Lauren has the right to decide who is an acceptable ambassador for its products. The company’s decision to drop Thomas won’t sit well with many, but it does not fall under the lazy jargon of “cancel culture.” It’s merely an example of the free market at work. The flip side of those facts is that an isolated, angry comment isn’t the full measure of a man, and that the defense of human dignity isn’t best mounted by an industry that postures while surviving on sweatshops.

I have no idea if Justin Thomas is homophobic, having never discussed with him the latest shenanigans on RuPaul’s Drag Race. What I do know is that Thomas is prone to tripping over hot mics on broadcasts. This incident illustrates that not all F-bombs are created equally, that there’s a fine line between being passionate and being a pillock, and for a brief moment Thomas strayed to the wrong side of it. But absent a pattern of hateful comments, there’s no reason to define him by that moment. The social media ecosystem is obviously not a three-strike society, but Thomas is certainly deserving of a second.

Which is not to condemn Ralph Lauren as a villain in this piece. The decision to dump an athlete in whom it had invested millions of marketing dollars cannot have been taken lightly, and the company deserves kudos for its willingness to take a stand against homophobia while so many others are content to look the other way. But a glitzy fashion brand founded by Ralph Lifshitz from the Bronx might also have allowed for the possibility that a man can reinvent himself.

Perhaps it’s chimerical to wonder if Ralph Lauren and Thomas might have achieved more for the cause of inclusion in golf by working together than by divorcing via a Friday press release, or if a more positive learning precedent could have been set here instead. But then, such a notion presumes that Thomas has a sincere desire for any such effort, and that his former sponsor is willing to assume responsibility for teaching grown men about the perils of hateful language. You can see why the one-strike option won out.

It’s nothing new to hear prominent athletes toss around homophobic slurs. What is new is that there’s clearly now a price to be paid for doing so. In 2014, Patrick Reed used the exact same word in the exact same context at a tournament in China and suffered no consequences beyond an undisclosed fine from the PGA Tour and another bruise on what was even then a battered reputation.

In 2020, Scott Piercy posted to Instagram a homophobic meme about Pete Buttigieg and lost his sponsors overnight, two of whom (Titleist and FootJoy) also sponsor Thomas. But there’s an enormous difference between angrily muttering a disgusting comment to oneself on the golf course and taking the time to post a loathsome image to social media that targets an openly gay individual. Piercy got what he deserved. Thomas does not warrant the same.

As one of the few out gay men in the golf world, I occasionally hear from college-age golfers who love the game and want a career in it. But they’re torn about remaining in golf because they’re gay and unsure there will ever really be a welcome on the mat. Those kids are the unseen and unheard impact of Thomas’s language, the people who will simply drift away from golf while this binary debate exhausts itself between those who are vocally upset at the slur and those who are just angry that others express their upset.

By the time the commentariat moves on to the next outrage, Justin Thomas will likely be the only person to have drawn a lesson from these events. The people full of passion on either side of the argument he inspired—whether motivated by righteous humanity or cruel contempt—will carry on much as they did before a short putt slid by the hole in Maui and a man decided to open his mouth and change his life.

Published at Golfweek.com, January 17, 2021.

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