It is nearly 3 ½ years later. Jason Collins, an NBA center hoping to squeeze another season or two from the twilight of his career, has come out. Michael Sam, a successful college player trying to make it in the NFL, has since announced he is gay. Robbie Rogers, an American soccer player in England and later to return to the United States with the Los Angeles Galaxy, has made the same declaration.
Now Warriors president and chief operating officer, Rick Welts looks back without regret that he came out in a May 2011 front-page story in the New York Times, as the first prominent North American sports figure to publicly disclose his homosexuality. He looks ahead with optimism while seeing work still ahead before gay athletes and officials find true acceptance. In between — in the moment — he remains in the role he not only accepted but embraced at the time of his historic announcement: a leading voice whenever the topic enters the public conversation.
Welts was honored Saturday in San Francisco with the Davidson/Valentini Award by GLAAD as what the advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues called the “LGBT media professional who has made a significant difference in promoting equality for the LGBT community.” The presenter? New Warriors assistant coach Jarron Collins — Jason’s brother.
Welts, who rose from ball boy with the Seattle SuperSonics to executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the NBA and later president and chief operating officer of the Suns, couldn’t help but notice the sports world he helped pave, as he noted in a conversation in advance of the award ceremony.
NBA.com: What does something like that mean to you, to be put on that plateau, to be put on that podium, for the work that you’ve done?
Welts: I don’t know. It’s actually a really great opportunity to kind of reflect back over what I think has been just a remarkable time on our country’s history. For me, since I made my announcement in May of ’11, there’s no way I could have foreseen or anybody could have foreseen the transformation in our society over that period of time in regards to a whole number of issues.
I’m really proud of the NBA on that night. I’m obviously humbled by being selected for the honor, but the cooler thing for me is that I’m not sure what we’re going to do on Saturday night can be replicated in any other league. We have an openly gay president of an NBA team being presented by one of our team’s assistant coaches who happens to be the twin brother of the first male professional athlete to come out during his career, Jarron Collins. That’s a rare combination of events and personalities that kind of come together. I’m really proud of our league. I’m really proud of where the NBA is and will be on this issue and I think that it speaks volumes about the leadership in our league and its vision for what sports leagues can be and should be. If anything, that’s probably what I take away the most pleasure in.
NBA.com: One thing I’ve always noted is that stepping into this role as almost a spokesman for the whole movement, it’s not just something you have accepted, it’s something that you really seemed to have embraced. Where did that come from? Is that something you always wanted to have once you decided to come out or is that just how it evolved?
Welts: It was part of the thought process in deciding to undertake my journey the way I did. When I was thinking about this, I remember in January of 2011 asking one of my longest-standing friends and who I consider to be the smartest guy in the PR business, Dan Klores, when I was in New York.
I can remember it like it was yesterday. It was a snowy night on the Upper East side. We got together for dinner. I said, “Dan, here’s what I’m thinking about. But I’m too close to it. I could do this a number of ways. I could just take care of this privately with friends, family and co-workers and accomplish basically what I want to. But you need to help me understand if there’s a bigger story here and whether or not I could do more good by telling it another way.” That night, he looked across the table at me and said, “If you’re really prepared to do this, I think it’s Page A-1 New York Times.” That was kind of my “Oh, (shoot)” moment, excuse my French. I was kind of like, “Wow. Really? OK.”
And then over the ensuing few months I got introduced to a brilliant writer at the New York Times, Dan Barry, and talked about how the story could be told in a very thoughtful way and enlisted from Bill Russell to Steve Nash to David Stern to tell the story of someone about nobody in the sports world would really know: me. I don’t play, I don’t coach, I’ve devoted my life to this business but hearing about me through names that everybody that’s associated with sports would know is a great way to really put a circle around the announcement and to hopefully create some really substantive discussion about those issues in men’s pro sports, which has trailed — still trails, but I think we’re catching up a little bit — the country in terms of attitude and environments that are created in the workplace.
So, yeah, it’s what I signed up for. I embrace it and I’m incredibly gratified to see with amazement what’s happened since then. Not everybody gives Robbie Rogers enough credit, who is on the U.S. national soccer team and was a European soccer player at the time he made his announcement, now plays for the Galaxy. Jason Collins, obviously. Just an incredibly amazing act of strength to do what he did when he did it and the way he did it. And Michael Sam that we’re all rooting to find a job. But also we’re reading about college athletes and high school athletes who are taking those steps very courageously to make this something that we have to talk about. The more we talk about it, the better we understand it.
NBA.com: Has there been a time when you said, “Go talk to someone else. I don’t want to be the voice every time”?
Welts: I probably reached that point a couple months after my own announcement — “What I really am is somebody who’s president of a basketball team and I really would like to get back a little more working on that and talking a little bit less about this.” But in proportion over time, for me, I think I’ve got a nice balance between my passion in life, which is being part of an NBA franchise, and the role that I signed up for here to be involved in the discussion about sexual orientation in professional sports.
NBA.com: How often do you have professional and college athletes contact you and say, “This is where I’m at in my life. Give me some feedback on how it was for you to go public, what can I expect”?
Welts: That was the hardest thing I faced. There was nobody who had done what I had done before. There was just that unknown. You don’t know what the reaction’s going to be. You don’t know how people are going to deal with it. I would say much more than players have been other people in other parts of our industry, who are on the business side or involved in broadcasting or are involved in all the industries that surround sports, that are a part of sports, that are at some point in their own personal journey trying to decide what’s right for them.
I welcome those conversations. They happen quite often. But there’s no road map here. This is an incredibly personal decision that has to be the right time, right place, right circumstances for anybody who wants to take this step.
I think what we’re learning, it’s really important to tell those stories because the more often people are exposed to people in our industry who are gay, each subsequent conversation gets easier. More people are encouraged to take that step because there’s a little more certainty that the outcome can be really great. The outcome’s been, I would say, really great for any of the people that I described. I can promise you it’s been really great for them in their own personal lives and I think career wise it has not been an impediment. I think it speaks volumes to the progress we’re making, but it also shouldn’t be mistaken for a victory lap. I think we still have quite a ways to go.
NBA.com: Why did you decide to take this role of remaining so front and center when you could have made your announcement — “This is what I want to say” — and then just sort of say “If anyone has any questions about the business of basketball, I’ll be pleased so talk about it.” Why did you decide to take on this load?
Welts: Then I should have gone about it a different way, if that’s what I wanted to do. I chose to do that in a very public way with the hope that it would generate really thoughtful dialogue on the subject. To then turn your back on that wouldn’t seem to be consistent with what I was trying to accomplish when I did it.
NBA.com: Any regrets that you chose that path?
Welts: No. Absolutely none. Not even “Are you sorry you waited so long.” That was the right time for me. It wasn’t the right time before that. I don’t regret that I didn’t do it before that and I’m incredibly gratified with everything that’s come my way since. For me, it was the right thing at the right time. It’s worked out much better than I ever could have imagined.
NBA.com: How much hate mail do you get?
Welts: Zero. It’s the part of my story that I think that almost can’t ring true, but it does. The thousands, literally thousands, of e-mails, dozens and dozens and dozens of hand-written letters, not a single person who took the time to track me down has had anything other than encouraging words or thanks.
It’s amazing to hear not only from people who are in the same circumstances but to hear from parents or from kids themselves who just appreciated the fact there was a way to talk about this with their kids or their parents that they didn’t have before. That is pretty humbling. It defies logic. I was prepared for some proportion of negativity, but it’s never materialized. Frankly, it almost doesn’t sound true because it seems like it’s illogical there wouldn’t be some element of that. But as it relates to me, there has not been a single bad experience that’s happened as a result of that.”
NBA.com: Have any other players talked to you and told you that they’re thinking of coming out and making the announcement and try to get some feedback from you?
Welts: I don’t want to go there. If that has happened, it’s not something I would ever even want to acknowledge or talk about.
NBA.com: What is the next step in this story? We have had executives, we have had players. What’s next to knocking down some of the barriers that still exist?
Welts: Jason was part of the NBA’s rookie transition program this year, which was enlightening for everybody involved. We still have a lot of education to do with young athletes. I do think that we’re watching a generational change. I like telling a story that the day my story ran, my favorite call that day was to my then-13-year-old niece, who I’m very close with who couldn’t wait to get on the phone with me to tell me that her, as she described it, coolness factor at school had gone up dramatically when people found out that I was her uncle. Trying to think back to when I was 13, I don’t think that probably would have been the same reaction.
We’re evolving. Our society’s evolving. Our attitudes are evolving as we get greater understanding. When you know somebody and you can talk to somebody who’s different than you are, whether they’re gay or they’re black or whatever makes them different from you, you come away from those experiences with less fear and greater understanding of the world. I think we’re making progress, but we have to keep telling those stories and we have to not take anything for granted. We’ve got a long way to go to make the professional sports industry probably at a par with what most industries are right now. I’m really proud of the progress that we’ve made, but I think we’ve got a long way to go.