I’ve always said that the NBA is the league which would blaze a trail for homosexuals in big name, big money team sports. And it’s not because it’s the association containing a team literally named the Portland Trail Blazers.
It’s because the NBA 1.) is the league more about individual personality (marketing that individual as a brand) than any other and 2.) has such a strong following among many of America’s marginalized people and minority groups, I theorize the “Gay Jackie Robinson” would probably have an easier time in the NBA than the NFL or MLB.
Yesterday, a monumental step was taken when a New York Times feature on Rick Welts, the president and chief executive of the Phoenix Suns, focused on Welts’ coming out.
In the history of the big three team sports, he is the first openly gay member of a front office.
By Paul M. Banks
According to the Times:
But until now, Mr. Welts, 58, who has spent 40 years in sports, rising from ball boy to N.B.A. executive to team president, had not felt comfortable enough in his chosen field to be open about his sexuality. His eyes welling at times, he also said that he planned to go public.
His discomfort is understandable. The day after Welts conducted the interviews for that piece, and told NBA Commissioner David Stern that he was going public about his sexuality, Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, one of the league’s best and most visible players, responded to a technical foul called on him by telling the referee he was a “faggot.” In response, the league came down hard on Bryant, fining him a $100,000.
This incident is yet another reminder of how far behind the curve of social progress many of our biggest athletes are. Yet the NBA’s handling reminds us they’re slightly more progressive than the other leagues. There are very few openly gay jocks, but of that handful, former NBAer John Amaechi is by the most vocal and well known.
Welts’ admission is an especially huge landmark because of his career achievements. He’s a basketball lifer, who’s been in it since childhood, was PR Director for the Seattle Supersonics when they won their only title in 1979, and played a big role in some of the banner events in 1984, the year that transformed the league.
1984 saw: Stern, the league’s most important commissioner, take his office, the most prolific draft class of stars in league history, and the formation of All-Star weekend, which Welts helped create. So Welts has plenty of experience getting messages out to the people and getting the public to embrace new ideas. He’d now like to do the same- on a sociopolitical level.
Quoting the Times again:
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.”
Mr. Welts rose to the position of executive vice president, chief marketing officer and president of N.B.A. Properties in the late 90s. He returned in 2002 to lead the Suns front office. The news Welts broke yesterday will soon be traversing all across the sports media world, and this will make him a pioneer. Actually, he already is.
Suns players Grant Hill and Jared Dudley have filmed a PSA against homophobic slurs, and Suns point guard Steve Nash (a former league MVP) went on record to give enthusiastic vocal support of Welts, and the message Welts is sending.
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