Rick Welts Comes out of the Locker Room

Rick Welts Comes out of the Locker Room May 16, 2011

Rick Welts, president and chief executive of my hometown basketball team, the Phoenix Suns, is gay. Since Mr. Welts is 58, this is not news. The newsworthy part is, he now feels confident that professional sports can tolerate openly gay men in the front office, and ultimately, on the playing fields. As the Times reports:

In many work environments, this would qualify as a so-what moment. 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.

By this point, Mr. Welts had already traveled to Seattle to share his news with another friend, Bill Russell, one of the greatest basketball players ever and the recent recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He had also met with Val Ackerman, the founding president of the Women’s National Basketball Association, in New York, and would soon be lunching in Phoenix with Steve Nash, the point guard and leader of the Suns and twice the N.B.A.’s most valuable player.

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.”

I can’t say for sure how any of the Suns will react to Welts‘ revelation– I’m guessing even the die-hard homophobes among them will shrug and mutter something about rank having its privileges. As for gays serving openly in the ranks, I’m fairly sure that’s on the way, too. That Braves’ pitching coach Roger McDowell’s colorful tirade might earn him a day in court with Gloria Allred won’t do much in itself — nor should it. The lawsuit is the modern man’s martyrdom. But it seems some athletes themselves have taken to stumping against homophobia.

Ben Cohen is a world-class English rugby star, and Hudson Taylor is a three-time college all-American wrestler. They live on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. They barely know each other.

Hudson Taylor, left, an American, and Ben Cohen, an Englishman, say they help spread a message to a broader audience.

But they have something quite unusual in common. They may be the only two high-profile heterosexual athletes dedicating their lives to the issues of bullying and homophobia in sports.

The question that each one frequently gets — besides “Are you gay?” — is why are they involved in something that does not directly impact them, or so it would seem.

That is just the point, they said. In much the same way that the hockey player Sean Avery’s recent endorsement of gay marriage resonated in large part because it came from an unexpected source, their sexual orientation helps the message cross to broader audiences, Cohen and Taylor said.

“It’s massively important,” Cohen said Friday in New York, a stopover on a cross-country campaign for his fledgling Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation. “Massively. Of course it is. I’m the other side of that bridge.”

Rugby seems to be among the most progressive of sports. In 2009, former Wales captain Gareth Thomas publicly identified himself as gay.

Now, some Catholics may feel disheartened. I see no reason why they should. I doubt very many people have been driven to conversion by hearing themselves derided in locker rooms. As I argue in “Gays and Lesbians, Affirmative Orthodoxy, A Changing World,” this new tolerance of homosexuality presents the Church with the challenge of selling continence to gays and lesbians in a way that affirms their identity. Once she manages to do that, there’ll be no room left to confuse her teachings with crass bigotry, or to claim that the first is riding the coattails of the second. Here’s yet more incentive.

Others might worry that every locker room in America will soon groan under the yoke of enforced niceness. If you can’t attack someone’s race or his sexual orientation, what’s left? I have to admit, I panicked a bit myself. But then it hit me: the mother. There’s always the mother. I see no reason to believe that Mothers Against Drunk Driving will drop a “D” and rename itself “Mothers Against the Dozens.”

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