Four and a half months ago, Rick Welts, then the president and CEO of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, became the first openly gay senior executive in American professional sports. Welts, 58, left the Suns last month for personal reasons, saying he wanted to move to Northern California to be with his partner. But today, Welts officially joined the Bay Area-based Golden State Warriors, saying he was for the first time aligning his professional life with a personal life he had shielded from his co-workers for decades.
At his introductory press conference this afternoon, Welts was asked to list the positives and negatives he’s faced since coming out in mid-May. To his own surprise, Welts said, “nothing negative has happened,” and the reaction from players, coaches, fans, and other league executives has been nothing but positive:
WELTS: I can’t tell you anything negative because nothing negative has happened. … The reaction has been overwhelming, not only from the people I worked with, which I kind of expected, but … the hundreds of emails I got from people I don’t know — parents, kids, other people in our industry who are facing a similar situation. … I wouldn’t change anything about it. … I haven’t had one negative reaction. I was prepared for something totally different.
Welts’ decision was seemingly the first major step in a year that contained a marked transition in public expressions of support for gay rights in sports. Phoenix players were quick to offer support for Welts and gay marriage after he came out. Then, former Phoenix all-star and current NBA analyst Charles Barkley told the Washington Post he’d “rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play” and that, “as a black person,” he couldn’t support “discrimination in any form at all.” Former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin appeared on the cover of Out! Magazine, in which he told the story of his gay older brother, and declared, “If anyone comes out in those top four major sports … I guarantee you I’ll give him 100 percent support.” Multiple Major League Baseball teams, meanwhile, recorded “It Gets Better” videos.
And while Welts insists his first goal is to build a winning basketball team (“What I’m about is running NBA basketball teams,” he said today), he acknowledged that he felt an “obligation” to bring the discussion about homosexuality into sports. “I think the whole object of what I’ve gone through this year is to elevate the quantity and quality of the discussion so we’re not afraid of the topic,” Welts said. “I think I’ve achieved a little bit of that. … There’s some kid out there who wonders whether or not they can follow their passion and be successful just because of who they are. … Who you are doesn’t prevent you from achieving what you want in life is a message I hope we can all send.”