In what may become a defining moment for the NBA, Rick Welts, president of the Phoenix Suns and basketball lifer, took a courageous step and came out to the world on Sunday, revealing he is gay. With the support of commissioner David Stern, NBA legend Bill Russell and Steve Nash, Welts took his story to the New York Times, stepped out of the shadows and opened a line of communication with the goal of changing the culture in sports.
Welts' story comes in the midst of a movement in professional sports. In the past month, homophobia has been confronted head-on through a series of positive and negative events, all intertwined by the single issue of homosexuality in sports. Combined, these events have opened a healthy, running dialogue as fans and public figures engage in conversation in an effort to foster change.
By nature, sports are a masculine enterprise. To rise to the professional ranks, it takes drive and an alpha-male personality. In locker rooms and board rooms dominated by a vast collection of alpha males, any perceived weakness is pounced upon and attacked vigorously. And in the world of athletics, homosexuality is one of those perceived weaknesses. Players equate gay with weak and use derogatory terms for homosexuality while othering, a concept Andy Hutchins explored after Kobe Bryant mouthed the words "f***ing fa***t" towards a referee.
The locker room culture as it stands now isn't conducive to acceptance. Athletes either fit in with the crowd or face ridicule or worse. It's akin to bullying or a mob mentality on the playground. And it creates a fear that shouldn't exist anywhere, but especially not in a workplace that becomes more like a home for professional athletes. The culture of fear makes Welts' stand even more courageous, but also keeps countless others silent.
Slowly but surely, professional athletes are emerging as allies and taking up causes that go far beyond sports. It's these causes, which include speaking up for same-sex marriage and vigorously denouncing hate speech, that are creating a culture shift in professional sports. And recently, it feels as though the dam has broken and we've reached critical mass, as Hutchins said.
Sean Avery is one of the NHL's bad boys: an agitator, fighter and all-around pest. His style of play on the ice is imposing and he's known as a playboy off the ice, dating a litany of high-profile female celebrities and bragging openly about his conquests. In 2008, Avery made waves with the following statement about his conquests.
"I'm just going to say one thing. I'm really happy to be back in Calgary; I love Canada. I just want to comment on how it's become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds. I don't know what that's about, but enjoy the game tonight."
But in a sign of growth, Avery recorded a public service announcement in support of gay marriage a few weeks ago. By doing so, an ally emerged from the unlikeliest of places. Avery's public service announcement opened a line of communication about same-sex marriage, but also touched a nerve and drew both positive and negative reactions.
Shortly after the public service announcement debuted, Todd Reynolds, a player agent at Uptown Sports, called Avery's support of gay marriage misguided and wrong, setting off a firestorm of reaction. Uptown Sports represents numerous professional hockey players and Reynold's used the company Twitter account to broadcast his thoughts to the world. Reaction was quick and overwhelmingly negative as the social media universe pounced. While Reynolds' words harmful and discriminatory, the conversation about homophobia in hockey that followed turned what could have been a negative moment into a positive.
Jared Dudley and Grant Hill recorded a public service announcement about hate speech, specifically using the term gay in a derogatory manner. The commercial, coincidentally recorded on the same day as Kobe Bryant's outburst and released on the same day the New York Times article on Welts ran, had a simple message directed towards teenagers: Don't use gay as a synonym for dumb. With the public service announcement, Hill and Dudley became allies and took a stand against hate speech.
But as a reminder of how far we, as a society, have to go, Hill was hit with tweets calling him various derogatory terms. The words included those he urged viewers not to use and came immediately after the commercial debuted. Instead of getting angry or firing back, Hill exposed the tweets while noting they were the reason why a PSA was necessary. It was another teachable moment.
While allies continue to take stands, we're constantly reminded of how far sports have to go to reach acceptance. For every positive action, there's been a negative reaction or vice-versa. But the conversation that's followed each of these moments has been more important than the initial event that triggered the discussion.
Welts should be applauded for the incredible amount of courage it took to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight. But by no means should it be the end. Where would we be if the public didn't speak up after Reynolds' tweet about same-sex marriage? Where would we be if Kobe Bryant's hate-speech was met with tacit approval? By using these incidents as teachable moments, we're seizing an opportunity to grow and evolve while having honest, open discussions about issues that transcend sports.
Athletes are stepping up and becoming allies, but it's not enough. These moments are all pieces in a puzzle that's far from complete. But the moments are giving us, as fans, an opportunity to truly make a difference and to show Welts' and many others that they are not alone.
You have a voice. Use it. Speak up and move the conversation forward. Don't sit on the sidelines and allow the prejudice to continue. Don't let Welts' stand go to waste. Use the power of social media and the power of your own voice to educate, discuss and foster change. The opportunity is staring us all in the face, and how we react can change the landscape of sports, both now and for the future.