Suns executive's revelation won't do much to change pro sports culture

Suns' Rick Welts came out as gay, but it will take an active player's disclosure to really change sports.
Suns' Rick Welts came out as gay, but it will take an active player's disclosure to really change sports. (Associated Press)
Posted: May 17, 2011

HERE'S HOPING that, by revealing he is gay, Phoenix Suns president and chief executive officer Rick Welts has brought more happiness to his life.

But if he thinks he's made some culture-changing announcement, he hasn't.

"This is one of the last industries where the subject is off-limits," Welts told the New York Times. "Nobody's comfortable in engaging in a conversation."

And Welts' revelation won't change that.

Welts is thought to be the first man holding a high position in men's sports to say he is gay.

But he is not the only one.

Despite his position of authority with the Suns, unless you are a fan of the franchise, you probably had little idea of who he was until the story came out that he is gay.

This is not to diminish Welts' bravery, but a chief executive officer or a team president is not a player or coach. And in the grand scheme of things in the sports world, his coming out will have about as much impact as if I were gay and came out.

We're just periphery players. We don't matter.

Nothing will move this conversation substantially forward until an active player on one of our popular professional sports teams has the courage to step forward.

And it can't just be any level of player.

Yesterday, it was revealed that former Villanova basketball player Will Sheridan is gay. We've had retired NBA player John Amechi announce he is gay. Former major leaguers Billy Bean and Glenn Burke came out, as did former NFL players Roy Simmons, Dave Kopay and Esera Tuaolo. None of them said he was gay while he was an active player, so it is difficult to ascertain what the true sporting public's reaction was to their homosexuality.

To engage in this debate fully, an active player with All-Star level skill and popularity, not the guy at the end of the bench, would have to come forward as being gay.

We could not ignore that discussion.

If an NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL or MLS player, who has all of the attributes in skills and personality to lift him to the top of his sport, suddenly announces he is gay, we would get an honest debate. If a championship-caliber player, who is in his prime and is a fan favorite, tells us he is gay, we'll find out what people truly think.

It is easy to say it doesn't matter if we're talking about a faceless executive or former player of modest impact.

It's easy for me to write that I slant to the left and could not care less about the sexual orientation of any athlete, and that I am concerned only about his or her playing abilities.

But until we are actually faced with it, how do we really know what anyone truly thinks?

Until the choice presented to us is that this player could help us win a championship but we have to accept he is gay, we can't know for sure where this issue will take us.

Would teammates and fans accept an openly gay player as one of their own if they knew he would improve the team, or would they rather remain without a championship?

Would Welts, or any other executive, have the courage to bring in an openly gay player into the locker room if the fan base vehemently opposed it?

Would doing what's right by the standard set by Branch Rickey take precedent over doing what's right for the financial stability of the franchise?

This debate is not simple. There are issues layered upon other issues to be considered.

My thought right now is that the conversation at times would be ugly.

At times, it would be divisive.

At times, it would be enlightening and simultaneously repulsive.

But it would be brutally honest, and it would move the issue forward.

It would be a struggle in the beginning, and the first few athletes could suffer great losses for their courage.

But in the end, gay athletes would be accepted.

Erasing the color line in baseball was not an overnight process. The Phillies, Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox resisted integration for a decade after Jackie Robinson's arrival in the majors. The Red Sox were the last team to integrate in 1959.

Ultimately, openly gay athletes will be accepted, because if they can produce on the field, it will eventually negate issues over their sexual orientation.

Our society is evolving every day in acceptance of gay people. Several prominent male athletes have ignored the traditional taboos and publicly come out in support of gay rights.

We might not know who they are, but we know gay athletes play every night in the NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL and MLS. It is safe to assume several of them are probably some of the top performers in their respective leagues.

Maybe I'm just being naïve, but I think the desire for a championship would ultimately trump the ignorance of intolerance.

But we won't know for sure until a top player in one of our favorite sports comes out and the issue of gay athletes can be discussed realistically. *

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smallwj@phillynews.com.

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