Tuesday, May 17, 2011

President and CEO of the Phoenix Suns Announces He Is Gay


In the world of pro sports, and probably any level of sports, being a gay man is about as acceptable as being a leper. Sports are one of the few areas (besides school playgrounds) where it's still common to hear men call each other faggot as a slur against their manhood, despite the ass-kicking Kobe Bryant took for doing so on camera.

I can count on one hand the number of athletes I can recall having come out as gay. Maybe it's safer for the CEO of a team to do so, a guy who does not have to face the ostracism in the locker room - still, it's a step forward, especially in Phoenix, Arizona's conservative center.

Rick Welts, president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns, came out publicly this week. The NBA executive is one of the most high-profile figures still active in sports to declare that he is gay. Robert Siegel talks with Welts about his decision.


Rick Welts is president and chief executive of the Phoenix Suns of the National Basketball Association. He's 58 and he has spent a lifetime in the NBA, from ball boy for the Seattle Supersonics to league vice president, to his current post with the Suns. He is also gay and he's making that public this week.

And while gay male coming-out stories seem passe in some sectors of American life, in professional men's sports they are rare and worthy of attention.

Rick Welts has decided to tell his story first in this morning's New York Times and now to NPR. And he joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

Mr. RICK WELTS (President/CEO, Phoenix Suns): Thank you. Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first, why? Why have you decided to do this? And why now?

Mr. WELTS: It's the culmination of a lifelong personal journey for me. I'm at a point in my life, where the personal sacrifices that I've had to make, because of my career, really I'm at the point where I think doing this outweighs the concerns I've historically have about how it's going to affect my ability to be successful in my profession.

SIEGEL: One development that I gather led this was your partner died.

Mr. WELTS: Well, that happened back in 1994 after a 17-year relationship. And, yes, that was personally and probably the most painful example of how I had to compartmentalize this part of my life. I really was unable to speak of this or have that come with me to the workplace, which, of course, is a very, very difficult thing to endure for anybody.

SIEGEL: You related to the New York Times the story of telling your friend and your old boss, Commissioner David Stern, about all this. And one thing that he evidently was not was surprised. Did you find that when you were telling associates this it was something that they'd already assumed but never spoken of?

Mr. WELTS: Well, I think in the case of Commissioner Stern, a friendship that goes back 30 years, he, despite the fact that it was never spoken of you brought up the death of my partner I'd set up only in Seattle and only publicized in one obituary there, suggesting that people who wanted to honor him could contribute to a scholarship fund I'd sent up at the School of Architecture at the University of Washington.

And upon coming back from Seattle with a stack of envelopes I was opening to see the many people who were kind enough to contribute, there was one envelope that stood out from Scarsdale, New York. And when I opened it up, it was from David and Diane Stern for $10,000, which was an extraordinary gesture.

SIEGEL: If an NBA player came to you and said, you know, I'm gay but I've been keeping it under wraps as best I can. I'm troubled by my situation. What would your advice be?

Mr. WELTS: Well, I do think it's the most intensely personal decision anyone could ever make. And I wouldn't impose my own beliefs or suggestions upon that person, but just ask that they really search their soul and decide if, one, they are ready to do it, and if they're comfortable in that and believe there's some good that could done, then I'd think it'd be a wonderful thing. But I don't minimize the difficulty in reaching that decision, especially when you really realize how young are athletes are. Most of them are in their 20s, and whether it's the next contract or endorsements or whatever, that they are concerned about losing, I completely understand that and...

SIEGEL: Because they would lose, you say.

Mr. WELTS: No. I'm sure that they would. But no one's ever tried it. The outcome, by definition, is unpredictable.

SIEGEL: You are a career executive, a career sports executive in professional basketball. Vice presidents don't go to the locker room. I mean, that's not what presidents of NBA teams do. Would it really harm one's career in the executive ranks to come out as gay?

Mr. WELTS: Well, I guess we'll find out, won't we? You know, this is really the first time somebody in a position such as mine has chosen to take this step. So, as you asked about the advice to an athlete considering it, and I said, you know, there's no precedent, really.

In men's teams sports, there's really no precedent for this either, you know. The outpouring, I can tell you from the moment the wheels touched down at JFK yesterday until today has been absolutely overwhelming and incredibly gratifying from every corner of my life - from my professional associates, co-workers, friends, family - the encouragement and the hope that this could be a catalyst for some kind of intelligent discussion of this subject, one that's been so far off-limits in our industry. That maybe this could make one small contribution to moving that dialogue forward.

SIEGEL: Well, Rick Welts, thank you very much for telling your story to us today.

Mr. WELTS: Robert, thank you.

SIEGEL: Rick Welts, president and chief executive of the Phoenix Suns of the NBA, who has let it be known that he is gay.

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