President and Chief of Operations of the Golden State Warriors Rick Welts spoke on Tuesday at the Athenaeum to create a dialogue about “an uncomfortable topic” in sports, speaking about his journey as a gay man through men’s major league sports.
“The thing that made it hard for me was the fact that there was no one who had gone before me,” said Welts, as he related how he made the decision to go public five months ago by announcing he was gay in a front-page article of the New York Times. “I wanted to contribute to the whole dialogue of sexual orientation in men’s team sports, and my hope is to encourage someone out there to follow his passion in life and do the things he wants to do.”
Rick Welts is a pioneer, becoming the first executive in the world of men’s professional sports to come out as gay. Homosexuality has long been a political topic avoided in men’s sports, perhaps even more so than it was in the military. The macho culture has all but muted discussion on homosexuality, making it tough for gay athletes to reveal their sexual orientations during their careers. John Amaechi of the Utah Jazz, the first NBA player to come out, did so only after his playing days were over. This culture made it extremely tough for Welts, an active executive, to become a social crusader on this issue.
“Sports is the ultimate area where ethnicity, gender, and religion doesn’t matter,” said Welts, who feels that his sexual preference should not in any way prevent him from achieving his goals.
The barrier of sexual preference represents one of the last roadblocks to achieving equality in professional sports. Seeing the erosion of most other social barriers over time prompted Welts to ask, “Why is it that we have a hard time getting ourselves around [this one]?”
Welts started out as a ball boy for the Seattle Supersonics and was the club’s Director of Public Relations in 1979 when the team won its only championship. While at the University of Washington, he was the president of his fraternity, where he made lifelong friends and became a social leader among them. But throughout all this, he was grappling with the secret that he was gay.
Welts recalled that the local minister couldn’t help him when he wrote a ten-page letter discussing his homosexuality, an event that caused him to further suppress the truth. The most difficult conversation he had, however, was the one with his mother. When his mother sheepishly asked if he had any problem relating with women, Welts finally had to come forth. But to Welts’ surprise, his mother encouraged him greatly, and told him an even greater revelation: “You know, uncle Bob is gay, too.”
Nevertheless, throughout his 40-year career, aware of the stereotypes against homosexuals, Welts decided to conceal his sexual orientation.
In 1982, a lawyer named David Stern aggressively recruited Welts to work in the NBA League Office. Welts would rise to become the third-highest ranked executive in the league’s administration, and, during his time there, helped to create the NBA All-Star Weekend, promoted the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, and launched the WNBA. He was still working within the league’s ranks when Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive in 1991, an event that had both shocked fan base and educated it about the then-relatively unknown disease. Three years later, Welts lost his partner Arnie to AIDS.
“Having to navigate the loss of a spouse was extremely difficult, especially when I had to go back to work and pretend like everything was fine,” Welts said. But even then, he opted not to come out.
In an interview with Time magazine, Welts revealed that his current partner found it difficult to keep their relationship private due to the nature of his career. Welts wondered if it was worth it all when he couldn’t reconcile his public life with his private one.
About a year ago, Welts decided that he should openly come out as gay. He flew to Mercer Island, Wash., where he met Boston Celtics legend and his personal friend, Bill Russell, to discuss the most effective means of revealing his sexual orientation to the public. He received tremendous encouragement from Russell, who immediately embraced Welts in light of the announcement. NBA Commissioner David Stern, the next person Welts spoke to, embraced Welts and encouraged him to go public. He also talked with Steve Nash, who couldn’t believe that they were having that kind of conversation in 2011.
In the five months since, Welts’s life has changed dramatically. He recently appeared with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in Beverly Hills to promote their “Think B4 You Speak” campaign. Welts has also joined forces with Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) to increase social awareness of the uphill battle faced by homosexuals in today’s society. His story is allowing the nation’s debate over homosexuality to gain additional media coverage, but Welts understands that this is just the first step and that more work needs to be done.
“We need a lot of people, both gay and straight, to step forward to talk about this issue that we take for granted in sports,” he said.