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. (more…)