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Monday, May 23, 2011

Suns president Rick Welts tells The New York Times he’s gay

We've learned in recent weeks that the NBA still has a complicated relationship with anything other than the most heteronormative forms of sexuality. Kobe Bryant's unfortunate slur and his subsequent non-apology were not the league's best moments, and slang use of "pause" is a regularity on players' Twitter accounts.

Still, there are some signs that the NBA may be becoming more open-minded about this issue. Bryant recorded a nice PSA that was played at a few Lakers home games, and the Phoenix Suns' Grant Hill and Jared Dudley starred in a similar-themed spot that aired during Game 1 between the Bulls and Heat.

On Sunday, the NBA may have witnessed a watershed moment in its relationship with the LGBT community. In a piece by Dan Barry of The New York Times, Suns president Rick Welts told the world he's gay:

In these meetings and in interviews with The New York Times, Mr. Welts explained that he wants to pierce the silence that envelops the subject of homosexuality in men's team sports. He wants to be a mentor to gay people who harbor doubts about a sports career, whether on the court or in the front office. Most of all, he wants to feel whole, authentic.

"This is one of the last industries where the subject is off limits," said Mr. Welts, who stands now as a true rarity, a man prominently employed in professional men's team sports, willing to declare his homosexuality. "Nobody's comfortable in engaging in a conversation."

Dr. Richard Lapchick, the founder and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, and the son of the basketball legend Joe Lapchick, agreed. "The fact that there's no other man who has done this before speaks directly to how hard it must be for Rick to do this now," he said.

The article is lengthy and absolutely worth reading in full. Barry notes how Welts came out to several high-profile friends including David Stern, Bill Russell and Steve Nash(notes). He also tells how Welts went from a Seattle ballboy as a teenager in the '70s to the No. 3 employee in the entire NBA by the late-'90s. He worked as public relations director for the Sonics during their championship season of 1979, created All-Star Weekend, and played a major role into turning the NBA into a global force. Despite that success, he was unable to discuss his personal life, including the death of his long-time partner -- not just in public, but with friends and colleagues, as well.

It's a fascinating story that helps illuminate how far behind most of the country the NBA is with regards to sexuality. Welts is 58 and has accomplished more than all except a handful of executives in league history, but he only now felt comfortable enough to make the most basic aspect of his personal life public. Some of that reluctance is probably owed to his own personality. On the other hand, his unwillingness to do so for so long likely has something to do with the culture of machismo that pervades the NBA. Still, that he chose to make this decision at all may help break down barriers around the league.

However, the boardroom isn't the locker room, and progress in one doesn't always lead to broadened horizons in another. David Stern accepting a gay friend does not mean that a group of 15 players would be totally cool with one openly gay teammate. That time will come, but it's not necessarily right around the corner.

Nevertheless, instances of improved social equality should be celebrated no matter how minor the advances may be. Welts has made history, and we should applaud him for it.

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