Welts spoke with The Advocate at the U.S. Open in New York City prior to the ceremony for the awards, which recognize contributions to diversity and inclusion. The basketball team president and CEO was honored for his leadership as exemplified in the willingness to be open about his sexual orientation, as he became the first senior executive of a men’s professional sports team to acknowledge that he is gay, in a front-page interview with The New York Times in May.
|Tennis legend Billie Jean King, former NY Mayor David Dinkins and Rick Welts|
“I probably have had more job offers in the last five months than I ever have in my life from the most unexpected places, people who actually found me a more interesting candidate because of what I had chosen to do,” said the NBA executive, who joined the Suns in 2002. “It’s been overwhelmingly positive from my team, our players, our ownership, our employees.”
Welts said he has responded to “literally thousands of emails and hundreds of letters” from old colleagues, concerned parents, and children seeking interaction since his groundbreaking announcement. Calling his new platform a “huge sense of responsibility,” he said he was interested in working to better conditions for youth, perhaps with the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, which has an inclusive sports project and will honor him in Los Angeles next month.
“It’s been humbling, it’s been a little bit overwhelming, but in a very good way,” he said. “I think for me the challenge is kind of where from here, what do I do with this. I can’t tell you I have the answer to that.”
Asked about the year in professional sports so far, Welts said 2011 would be remembered as a watershed period for the advancement of LGBT causes. High-profile developments included a Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation public service announcement from the Los Angeles Lakers after shooting guard Kobe Bryant used an antigay slur, and the backlash against a hockey agent who criticized New York Rangers forward Sean Avery for his advocacy of marriage equality. Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash also participated in the same initiative, from the Human Rights Campaign.
“We have, especially in men’s team sports, great difficulty even having the discussion,” said Welts. “All these events that have transpired, good or bad, I think have heightened both the volume and the level of discussion to a place it’s never really been before, and I think inevitably that’s going, as we look back, to be viewed as a really important time.”
One breakthrough yet to occur is the emergence of an openly gay player in the major men’s professional team sports, something Welts said he was confident would happen, although he was reluctant to propose a time line.
“It will be incredibly courageous when it does happen, because it’s different from me,” he said. “It’s very different. We will.”