The President Comes Out
The president has come out.
No, not the president of the United States. (Though Barack Obama does have a better bod than, say, Newt Gingrich.)
It’s the president of the Phoenix Suns. And though this is only an NBA franchise, not the leader of the free world, a tipping point may have been reached.
When Rick Welts revealed last month that he’s gay—in an in-depth, insightful story in The New York Times, among other media—reaction was almost gleeful.
League commissioner David Stern—who knew for years, but never said anything directly to Welts, his former assistant— was strongly supportive. The legendary Bill Russell—a mentor of sorts—told Welts he would do anything to help. There was nary a peep from the NBA; the usual pseudo-“balanced” news coverage, including quotes from an anti-gay player or official, was absent.
According to Outsports.com, Welts’ announcement capped “the gayest sports month ever.” Since the beginning of the year, the LGBT sports website has logged over two dozen coming-out stories.
They range from Boston Herald sportswriter Steve Buckley and Olympic skater Johnny Weir (duh), to an English cricketer, a Scottish cyclist, a Swedish professional soccer player, a Dutch racecar driver, and several high school and college athletes and coaches.
This is not a drip-drip-drip of gay athletes. It’s an avalanche, covering nearly every sport, level, and circumstance.
No gay male athlete, currently competing in a major team sport, has yet come out. But the cumulative effect of this way-gay year is paving the way for that inevitability. And paving always creates a smoother path.
That path has been smoothed too by straight allies like Grant Hill and Jared Dudley. They filmed a public service announcement in support of the “Think Before You Speak” ad campaign, targeting the use of anti-gay language by teenagers. Simply, directly yet quite forcefully, the NBA stars send a message: “That’s so gay” is passé.
Hill and Dudley play for the Phoenix Suns. Welts is their boss. It’s unclear whether their PSA had anything to do with his sexuality, or if they even knew. (It was taped long before his public announcement.)
But that’s immaterial. What matters is that the ad aired during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals—the most-watched NBA game in cable history. Over 11 million viewers saw a no-nonsense condemnation of homophobia— in a venue that meant something to them.
The tipping point came closer—and the path to acceptance, even celebration, grew smoother—when New York Rangers star Sean Avery recorded his own video. He offered rousing support for the latest New York state campaign to legalize same-sex marriage.
The New York Times called Avery a “fashion-conscious, on-ice agitator.” He has lived in West Hollywood and New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. He interned at Vogue, and because of his aggressive playing style has been voted the “most hated player” in the National Hockey League.
Yet those contradictions pale in comparison to his video’s unequivocal message: “I’m a New Yorker for marital equality. I treat everyone the way I expect to be treated, and that applies to marriage.”
Baseball is hopping on the LGBT media bandwagon too. The San Francisco Giants became the first professional sports team to film an “It Gets Better” video, bringing hope to You Tube-watching gay youth while building awareness that anti-gay bullying is not cool.
The Giants had been thinking of making a video— joining thousands of individuals, and companies like Apple and Google in nearby Silicon Valley. When lifelong fan Sean Chapin got 6,000 signatures on an online petition drive in favor of the idea, the reigning World Series champs quickly agreed.
The Giants had been stung a few days earlier when Atlanta Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell taunted three men in the Giants’ stands with homophobic comments and suggestive gestures.
And Welts’ announcement came just a few days after Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant called a referee “faggot.” NBA commissioner whacked Bryant with a $100,000 fine.
So—despite all the positive signs—bumps still litter the gay-acceptance road. Though high school and college athletes are coming out in record numbers, many remain closeted. All the Grant Hill, Jared Dudley, and Sean Avery videos in the world may not overpower the words young players hear from Kobe Bryant and Roger McDowell.
On the other hand, they may. Rick Welts is not a household name, but his position—president of a successful NBA team—is powerful. When he joins professional athletes in support of LGBT issues—uniting many sports and many levels of achievement in a common cause— the message is clear.
And it’s not “It Gets Better.” It’s “It Already Has.”
Dan Woog, is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, gay activist, and author. Email Dan Woog