According to USA Today, three-time Olympic gold medalist snowboarder Shaun White issued a series of apologies on Monday for dressing up as "Simple Jack" for Halloween, a mentally disabled character from the hit comedy "Tropic Thunder," played at the time by Ben Stiller as a satire on actors who exploit disabilities to garner Oscar nominations. "Simple Jack" was not an actual character in the "Tropic Thunder" plot but a film-within-the-film role that Ben Stiller's character had previously played in a sorry attempt to get accolades. Here was Shaun White's take on it:
After posting photos of the costume to Instagram, several of White's followers immediately expressed outrage, accusing him of insensitivity toward people with mental disabilities.
"I'm so incredibly disappointed in you," one comment on Instagram reads. "Making fun of people with intellectual disabilities is BS and you know it Shaun."
The backlash became so fierce that Soeren Palumbo, co-founder of Special Olympics' "Spread the Word to End the Word Campaign," issued a statement condemning White's costume as an offensive joke that "causes so much pain."
"We are truly disappointed that Shaun White, an acclaimed Olympian, would choose this costume which is so offensive and causes so much pain," Soeren Palumbo told E! News. "Disability is not a joke nor should it be a punchline. We hope that Shaun White and others learn that this just continues stigma, stereotypes and discrimination."
Shaun White quickly deleted the Instagram post and issued an apology on Twitter:
"I owe everyone in the Special Olympics community an apology for my poor choice of Halloween costume the other night," White wrote on social media. "It was a last minute decision. It was the wrong one. The Special Olympics were right to call me out on it. They do great work supporting so many tremendous athletes and I am sorry for being insensitive. Lesson learned."
White's apology appears to have been accepted by the Special Olympics heads, whose official account thanked White while extending him "an invitation to shred with our athletes at #XGames Aspen!"
The character "Simple Jack" has been a source of much controversy since it hit theaters in 2008. Though the character was clearly a satire on actors every bit as much as Robert Downey Jr.'s use of blackface was in the film, disability rights organizations condemned "Tropic Thunder," alleging it mocked people with disabilities, especially over its flippant use of the word "retard," which has long been condemned by the community as a disparaging term.
"When I heard about it, I felt really hurt inside," said Special Olympics global messenger Dustin Plunkett. "I cannot believe a writer could write something like that. It’s the not the way that we want to be portrayed. We have feelings. We don’t like the word ‘retard.’ We are people."
"If you want to pick on people, as the old playground saying goes, pick on people your own size," said Timothy Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics. "This population struggles too much with the basics to have to struggle against Hollywood. We’re sending a message that this hate speech is no longer acceptable."
Andrew J. Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, who had met with DreamWorks co-chair Stacey Snider for a private screening of the film, condemned "Tropic Thunder" as both "tasteless" and "offensive start to finish."
"I have a sense of humor," said Imparato. "There were parts of the movie where I laughed, but it seems to me that the movie tried really hard to go too far and then pull back on everything that was offensive except the issue of people with intellectual disabilities. I just think Ben Stiller and the people involved in this movie just didn’t think it was going to be offensive."
Though DreamWorks pulled some promotional materials to "Tropic Thunder," no cuts or changes were made to the final product.