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Justin Thomas’ apology for anti-gay slur falls short

Thomas apologized for using an anti-gay slur on the golf course, but used the same clichés they all do.

Sentry Tournament Of Champions - Round Three
Justin Thomas is the No. 3-ranked men’s golfer in the world.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Justin Thomas made all of the expected remarks after he was caught saying an anti-gay slur on the golf course this weekend.

The No. 3-ranked golfer in the world says he takes responsibility for his words and is “extremely embarrassed.” He “deeply apologizes” to “everybody and anybody” whom was offended, and perhaps most importantly, this is “not the kind of person” he is. (Former Cincinnati Reds announcer Thom Brenneman also said he’s “not that person” after dropping the F-word on a hot mic during a game broadcast last season.)

Everybody misspeaks and says things they regret. From that standpoint, Thomas’ apology is accepted. But for once, it would be nice if an athlete in his situation acknowledged the prevalence of casual homophobia, and explained why they reflexively used an anti-gay slur while playing.

That’s where Thomas’ apology falls short.

During the third round of a PGA Tour event Saturday, Thomas missed an easy putt for par. Immediately, he called himself a “fag.” A live mic caught it all.

Thomas apologized in a post-round interview with the Golf Channel:

I just apologize. 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 that I am, or anything that I do. But unfortunately, I did it, and I have to own up to it.

Whenever something like this happens, athletes are intent on clearing their names. Understandably, Thomas probably wants to make it abundantly clear he isn’t homophobic. He must protect his reputation, never mind lucrative sponsorships with products like Titleist and Beats. Let the verbal self-flagellation commence.

The PGA Tour also called Thomas’ comment “unacceptable.”

But here’s the thing: reasonable people aren’t accusing Thomas of virulent homophobia. The issue is a culture where homophobic insults are casually thrown around on the golf course.

Thomas said the word spontaneously and easily. Maybe this was the first time he ever said “fag,” and it just so happens he got caught on national TV. That would be a tough break. But common sense tells us that likely isn’t the case.

Male athletes casually use anti-gay slurs. We’ve all experienced it; we talk to LGBTQ athletes every day who experience it. The words push gay athletes away. This is not harmless locker room talk.

Last spring, I spoke with one-time elite amateur golfer John Brooks, who says the sport’s atavistic culture drove him away from the course for two years — and destroyed his mental wellbeing.

Brooks also wrote an essay for Golf Digest about his experiences. “Growing up, as I began to make sense of my sexuality, I had dreams of becoming the first ‘out’ male professional golfer,” he writes. “But that didn’t happen. I never felt fully at ease within the golf community, which is strange to say because I really love the game.”

Gay former college golfer Christopher Noble, who publicly came out on Outsports in 2019, says he constantly heard anti-gay slurs on the course. “Throughout high school golf, I can’t begin to remember how many times I would hear, ‘that’s so gay,’ ‘what a faggot’ or ‘that sucks dick’ before, during or after a round,” he said.

In his coming out story in Outsports last month, pro golfer Kyle Winn wrote about how the links are seen as a safe place for men to say things that would never be tolerated in public:

“To me that sums up the golf industry in many ways — it’s a place some people can congregate and use racist, misogynist and homophobic terms and get away with it because ‘they’re at a golf course.’ It just makes me sad that the golf industry has probably lost so many golfers and possible professionals who have been turned off by these unfortunate true stereotypes.”

Thomas has the luxury of apologizing and moving on with his life. But a young gay golfer who may have been watching Saturday, and already feels uncomfortable on his high school team, can’t let the insult just slip away. The word “fag” is odious. It says gay people aren’t welcome.

It’s unlikely Thomas thought of all these repercussions when the word slipped out of his mouth Saturday. But ignorance is not alibi. The second part of Thomas’ post-round remarks indicate he still may not grasp the ugly nature of that slur.

“I’m speechless,” he said. “I found out when I got done with my golf course, when I got done with my round. It’s bad. There’s no other way to put it. I need to do better. I need to be better. It’s definitely a learning experience. I deeply apologize to everybody and anybody who I offended.”

As our Cyd Zeigler astutely points out, Thomas didn’t “find out” he said the F-word after the round was over. He must know what he said. But he probably didn’t find out he got caught until after he had stepped off the course for the day.

So what’s the takeaway here? Are gay slurs unacceptable to use at all times, or unacceptable to use only when a live mic picks them up? Of course, people generally only apologize for mistakes when they get caught. But it’s what they do after apologizing that matters.

Casual homophobia is a problem in golf. Thomas is one of the most decorated players on the PGA Tour, capturing the 2017 PGA Championship and 13 tournaments in total. And there he was, casually dropping the F-word after missing par.

The episode is indicative of the problem. Thomas has an opportunity to be a big part of the solution, and here’s hoping those steps are taken. But of course, in order to fix a problem, one must be acknowledged.