Sports with Art Thiel
9:00 pm
Thu May 19, 2011

NBA executive's revelation he's gay a 'positive step in a slow evolution'

He started his NBA career in Seattle as an assistant public relations director for the SuperSonics. Now, Rick Welts is the president of the Phoenix Suns. And he recently revealed he's gay. He's the first person in men's team sports - executive or active player - to make such an admission.

KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel has known Rick Welts for more than 30 years, from his time in Seattle. He shared some insight on Welts' struggle to reveal his sexual orientation in an industry that Art says has "a narrow definition of manliness that does not include being gay."

Kept His True Self to Himself

Art says he eventually learned that Welts was gay, but not from him directly. He says it wasn't a big deal to anyone who knew Welts. Art says, throughout his "meteoric rise" within the executive ranks of the NBA, Welts struggled with whether to reveal his sexual orientation, worried about the impact it would have on him professionally.

Art says Welts' decision to come out to Dan Barry of The New York Times on Sunday, May 15, was sparked by a conversation he had with his mother before she died last winter. She gave him her blessing to go public. He then talked to a number of friends and professional colleagues before making the admission.

"He finally did the thing that he needed to do, which was have the courage to go ahead and let everyone know so that he may be able to help other- not only young people - but adults who are still struggling with the same issue."

Will This Be a Game Changer?

Art says it takes a long time to make big changes in America - just look at the issues of slavery and civil rights. He says Rick Welts has taken a stride. But whether it becomes more of a stride is almost unknowable.

"This is a taboo that is really strong in that narrow world of male culture in team sports."

Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant was recently fined for making a homophobic slur to a referee during a game. But Art gives the NBA credit for taking steps to combat this type of behavior. It is running a public service announcement during the playoffs where players are admonishing kids on a playground who've made disparaging remarks.

Will Rick Welts' action help any active players to make a similar admission? Art says we can't rely on that to change the culture. He says it starts with the fans.

"Rick has done something here that's a positive step in a slow evolution. The evolution...is going to have to take place in the stands. We can't put so much pressure on one individual player to be the Jackie Robinson. When we hear a slur, when we hear some behavior going on in the stands that's creating a mockery, it's up to us to call out that person and say 'hey, that's not cool.' And when that starts to be the norm, that's where progress is going to be."

You can find Art Thiel's work at Sportspress Northwest.