UPDATE, Feb. 16: Woodford Reserve, the bourbon whiskey manufacturer, says it plans to drop Justin Thomas. Last month, Citi said it is sticking with Thomas, but will require he donate a “meaningful portion” of his proceeds from their agreement to LGBTQ causes.
ORIGINAL STORY: Ralph Lauren's decision to drop Justin Thomas sends a strong message that homophobic language is unacceptable, regardless of intent. As an openly gay man in sports, I applaud that.
But the story should not end here. The work towards curtailing casual homophobia involves much more than a multibillion-dollar corporation severing ties with a multimillionaire golfer. For this unfortunate episode to produce everlasting change, there must be a pivot towards promoting inclusion and actively fighting hate speech.
Otherwise, we’re destined to repeat the same tired cycle of apologies and admonishments.
Ralph Lauren announced Friday afternoon it was dropping its sponsorship with Thomas. Earlier this month, Thomas was caught muttering the f-word on a live mic after he missed an easy putt during the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii.
“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.”
As the No. 3-ranked golfer in the world, Thomas has several major sponsors, including Titleist, Citi and Beats by Dre. Many LGBTQ voices, including at least one Outsports reader, have called on those companies to take action against him.
It wasn’t long ago when athletes could spout anti-gay slurs and not experience tangible repercussions. In 2014, PGA golfer Patrick Reed also called himself the f-word on a hot mic after missing a putt, and didn’t lose a single sponsor. Ralph Lauren cutting Thomas should serve as a deterrent. It shows there are consequences to using anti-gay language. That’s a good thing.
But it’s not a solution. We haven’t heard from Thomas since his apology, which relied on the same clichés they all do. In an apparent effort to save his sponsorships and reputation, Thomas said the slur isn’t representative of his character.
“It’s not who I am. It’s not the kind of person that I am, or anything that I do,” he said. “But unfortunately, I did it, and I have to own up to it.”
Owning up to it means more than issuing an apology and weathering the storm. Thomas has an opportunity to raise awareness about the evils of casual homophobia, and how the prevalence of anti-gay slurs drive LGBTQ golfers away from the course, even if the words aren’t directed towards them.
The PGA Tour, which condemned Thomas’ comment last week, has a role to play here as well. But so far, they’ve been silent.
Ralph Lauren says it hopes Thomas does the “hard and necessary work” it will take to partner with them again. As a major golf brand, they can help him get started on that work. It wouldn’t be helping Thomas rehabilitate his image as much as trying to build a more inclusive sport. There is a bigger picture to consider.
Otherwise, the only long-term impact from this incident will be Thomas just wearing a different brand on the putting green. That doesn’t help anybody.