Wednesday Lunch: Welts Coming Out a Big Step Forward for American Sports

Posted: May 18, 2011 in basketball, sports
Tags: , , , , , , , ,


By Nick Gallaudet


The American sports world is notoriously homophobic. It’s a traditionally macho culture, and there has never been an openly gay athlete in one of America’s four major men’s sports, including the NBA. In 1991, when Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive, he made an appearance on the Arsenio Hall show and unquestionably denied being gay, claiming, “I’m far from homosexual. Far from it.” Magic’s declaration of heterosexuality was met by an approving roar from the studio audience. In 2007, former NBA player John Amaechi came out as a gay man and was greeted with mixed reactions. Amaechi claimed that he was surprised by America’s reaction and expected it to be much worse than it actually was, but there were still negative comments, some from other former players. Tim Hardaway infamously claimed he would have asked for a gay player to be removed from his team. Last month, Lakers star Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 for directing a gay slur at a referee.


We could be on the precipice of a major change in American sports. On Monday, Phoenix Suns’ President Rick Welts announced he’s gay, making him the highest ranking NBA executive to come out, and here is why this is a big deal: On the heels of Kobe’s comments, the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant teamed up with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) to eliminate of gay slurs in basketball. The reaction by the NBA and Lakers made it clear that homophobia will not be tolerated in professional basketball, which set the stage perfectly for Welts. Despite the fact that Welts decision to come out had nothing to do with the Kobe situation, the timing couldn’t have been better. The Kobe fiasco sent the message to millions of NBA fans that the use of gay slurs is not okay, and it presented an opportunity to talk about homophobia in basketball. It broached a subject that, for some, is difficult to talk about, and Welts’ coming out only continues that conversation.


Harvey Milk, America’s first openly gay elected official and gay rights activist called for the gay community to come out, to end the “conspiracy of silence” and show America that gay people are everywhere. Coming out of the closet and talking openly about sexuality is the only way Americans will see that being gay is not weird, and that many current conceptions of gay people are stereotypes and generalizations. By coming out, people like John Amaechi and Rick Welts are showing people in sports that there are gay people among them. They are shattering stereotypes and providing role models for gay youth. Basketball is the perfect sport for this.


More than any other sport, basketball is marketing itself toward youth. It is embracing the hip-hop culture and the internet, two media facets dominated by younger audiences. By encompassing youth in its product, the NBA is also indirectly exposing these children to these groundbreaking gay figures. By having these figures in the forefront of their sports, children will see that being gay is not a hindrance to their goals, and if they are gay, they can still do whatever it is they want to do. Having these notable gay executives and athletes will also normalize homosexuality to others in the NBA and hopefully foster a more accepting atmosphere than the one Amaechi came out in.


Welts said that he wants to use this opportunity to end the conspiracy of silence in men’s sports and to show gay people that there is an opportunity for careers in sports. It’s unfortunate that it has taken this long for someone this high up in a major American sport to come out, but now that it has happened, it could be the beginning of major change in the sports world. Earlier this month, NHL bad boy Steve Avery released a video for the Human Rights Campaign supporting marriage equality, and when asked about Welts, Phoenix Suns star Steve Nash said, “anyone who’s not ready for this needs to catch up. He’s doing anyone who’s not ready for this a favor.” It’s clear that the fearful mentality toward homosexuality in sports is waning, but we’ve still got a ways to go, and we can only hope that Welts’ bravery inspires others to follow in his footsteps.


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