It’s been one week since Phoenix Suns president and CEO Rick Welts came out, publicly announcing that he is gay. And since that point Welts says he has received hundreds upon hundreds of emails, text messages, phone calls and snail mail on the subject, yet not one of them has offered any negative commentary.
He’s not so naive to think that he’ll never hear anything negative, but the fact that it hasn’t come yet has been a big surprise. Might it also be a sign that we’re moving closer to a point where athletes and others involved directly with professional sports can make such an announcement without it being a big deal.
Make no mistake, it will be a much larger story when a professional athlete follows Welts’ example and comes out. And we won’t know until then just how close we are to ridding the athletics world of its stigma, but reflecting on this situation one week later, it has certainly been a step in the right direction.
Rick Welts joined XTRA Sports 910 in Phoenix with Bickley and MJ to discuss conversations he had with David Stern, former players and current players, the reaction when he went back to work after making the announcement, why the stigma exists in sports, if he sees that slowly changing, the overwhelming response he has received since his announcement and his surprise that he hasn’t received negative commentary to this point.
What was the conversation like when he came out to David Stern?:
“He did know. There had been things that had happened and he had made gestures that we never talked about that were intended to assure me that he did know, that there was no issue with him, that I didn’t have anything to worry about. … It was probably the easiest conversation of all them because, of all the conversations, he’s probably the one I’ve spent the most time with. … Despite the somewhat gruff outward demeanor and one two-month period when we didn’t speak after a certain playoff series, he’s one of the most compassionate, caring people I’ve ever met.”
What were conversations like with past and present players?:
“Each one was completely unique. I met Bill Russell in the 70s when he was coaching our teams. I was white boy down the hall and he was the most famous player in the history of the NBA. … This was the first time in that entire time that he’d invited me to come to his home. … I think he knew that there was something really weighing on me that I wanted to talk about. … That looming 6-10 human being in his black sweatsuit and green Celtics hat took me into his TV room. … It was quite a setup for the conversation, but he was great. I bet we didn’t spend more than 10 minutes on it.”
Once he got back to town and back to work, what was it like at first?:
“Actually I was really looking forward to it. I had gotten home the afternoon before, but not in time to go to the office. … [The next day] I was really here before anybody and actually walked in, an hour later, to a meeting our leadership group was having. … When I walked in, just kind of spontaneously they stood up and applauded. That was very meaningful to me.”
What is it that makes this subject so taboo in sports?:
“That’s the million-dollar question. I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist. … All I know is that that is the environment. It’s not that there’s open hostility. I’ve never felt that, ever. But there is just this discomfort with the topic that it is just not discussed, ever, period. The problem that I had to wrestle with and that some player will eventually have to wrestle with is that if no one’s ever done this before, you’ve never had the opportunity to observe what that player went through. … That was a huge component of my hesitation that I eventually got over. … I don’t minimize how much more difficult that will be for a player to make that decision.”
Does he see that slowly changing?:
“Not just because of me, but because of other things that have happened, there’s been more dialogue on the subject in the last month than there has been in the history of sports. Inevitably that’s going to lead to where our profession and our society is getting closer together. The most revealing thing that’s happened to me through the whole experience is a phone call I had with my 13-year-old niece in Seattle on Monday who couldn’t wait to tell me that she got home from school and her coolness factor, as she called it, in her school, had gone up 10 times because people found out I was her uncle. I don’t think that would’ve happened when I was 12 years old.”
What has the response been in the week following the announcement?:
“There’s no other word than overwhelming, but overwhelmingly positive. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of emails, texts, phone calls and now I’m just starting to open mail. I’ve got U.S. senators, commissioners, players, owners, former co-workers. … I think the ones that are going to stick with me the longest are the people that I don’t know who have just felt the need to reach out — parents of kids who are struggling with this in their own lives, kids themselves.”
Has he heard any negativity or is he braced for that in case it happens?:
“I was braced for it, and I know you’re going to find this hard to believe, but not one of those interactions up to this point has been somebody who felt the need to express dissatisfaction. Every single one has been written out of wanting me to know that that person supported me, thanked me, was proud of me, or somehow impacted their own situation. … That blows me away. I was braced for what I expected to be some negativity about it. It hasn’t happened yet. I suppose that’s inevitable. But on balance it’s clear to me right now that’s not what I’m going to be dealing with to a great extent.”