First Step

Originally published in SLAM 150

by Dave Zirin

I guess every May we should just start to expect the Phoenix Suns to make political/sports history. Last year on Cinco de Mayo, the Suns shocked the world when they stood up as one and opposed Arizona’s anti-immigrant legislation, wearing jerseys that read simply, Los Suns.

On May 15 of this year, team president Rick Welts made history when he told the world he was gay. In doing so, Welts became the first executive of any major sports team to come out of the closet. “This is one of the last industries where the subject is off limits,” said Welts. “Nobody’s comfortable in engaging in a conversation.”rick welts

Men’s sports—more so than even the armed forces—is one of the last great hamlets of homophobia in our society. No active male jock has ever come out of the closet. This is what makes Welts’ action newsworthy. It starts a discussion the League—and all pro sports—are desperate not to have. Even NBA Commissioner David Stern, who is a political liberal as well as a friend of Welts for 30 years, said of gay rights: “I don’t want to become a social crusader on this issue.” Courage, in other words, is in short supply.

Fortunately, Welts is linked to a franchise where political courage is a way of life. Upon speaking to Welts, team captain 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.”

When John Amaechi, in 2007, became the first former NBA player to come out of the closet, current Sun Grant Hill said, “The fact that John has done this, maybe it will give others the comfort or confidence to come out as well, whether they are playing or retiring.” In fact, the very week Welts decided to come out, by sheer coincidence, Hill and teammate Jared Dudley were filming a Public Service Announcement against homophobia. In the PSA, a young ballplayer calls another player’s moves on the court “gay;” then Hill steps out and says, “Using gay to mean dumb or stupid—not cool.” Dudley then appears and says, “Not in my house—not anywhere.”

Later that night, on the very evening that PSA was filmed, Kobe Bryant used an anti-gay slur caught by microphones, and we were reminded that tolerance in pro sports is still window dressing. The reality of the locker room is that being gay is equated with weakness, and the conception of what makes a man is as adolescent as any high school.

We’ve approached a possible tipping point. NFL players Brendan Ayanbadejo and Scott Fujita have come out as straight supporters of LGBT equality. Ayanbadejo and New York Rangers hockey star Sean Avery have even filmed PSAs in support of marriage equality. Baseball’s San Francisco Giants just became the first sports franchise to film an “It Gets Better” YouTube video, which calls upon despairing LGBT teens to turn away from suicide as an option to solve their isolation or despair in the face of bullying.

The League could do so much more. Welts’ announcement alone probably won’t amount to much. Unless you are an NBA junkie who knows that Welts is the NBA executive responsible for the return of the Slam Dunk Contest in 1984, or are a die-hard Suns fan, you probably haven’t heard of the man. But Welts could perhaps ask his dear friend the commissioner to make discussion of homophobia part of every rookie orientation, as I suggested last month in this space. How about statements from the NBA that if any rookies in the room happen to be gay, the NBA will stand as a workplace where their sexuality won’t only be “tolerated” but accepted?

David Stern’s support for gay rights is also in the closet. It’s time to come out.