Over the weekend, Suns president and chief executive officer Rick Welts delivered a bombshell that had nothing to do with basketball. Welts revealed in an interview with the New York Times that he was gay. This is huge news around the NBA not just because of his announcement, but because Welts is believed to be the first man in a prominent position in men’s sports who has declared his homosexuality. There have been players before around the sports world, but nobody in this kind of position.
Someone’s sexual preference is irrelevant to me. What Rick Welts does in his own time is his business. As long as he is still very good at his job, that is all that matters. Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same way and there are still some people that haven’t caught up to some realities of society. John Amaechi, a former NBA player, waited until after he finished his playing career because of fear. After working hard to be an NBA player, he felt like that could have been taken away from him and waited until his career was over to announce his homosexuality.
John Amaechi joined ESPN 850 WKNR in Cleveland with Tony Rizzo to talk about when he found out about Rick Welts being gay, why he waited to announce his homosexuality following his NBA career, whether or not he felt his teammates and the fans would’ve still supported him if he announced he was gay while playing, and how much scrutiny he thinks a player would get if he or she announced they were gay.
What he thought when he first found out about Rick Welts being gay:
“To be honest I didn’t find out this weekend. I found out a little while ago, but I think the fact that he came out is a really remarkable thing. Testimony to the difficulty of coming out in sports is the fact that it’s not just the fact that it’s not just players that haven’t come out in the past, it’s significant members of the administration. So this is a big step. I mentioned to someone earlier today that for me, while I played, more significantly than having a fellow teammate or peer in the league would’ve been somebody like Rick coming out in a position of authority that maybe cleared that I wasn’t endangering my job by coming out. That would’ve been a real help to me.”
Why he waited till he retired to come out of the closet:
“Well because I worked very hard to get to the NBA. I started basketball at the age of 17 and six years later I was starting with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but by no means could I be called an outstanding player and I constantly felt throughout my career that I was ultimately replaceable. I didn’t want one of the reasons that I got to be replaced after I made all those right decisions to get to the NBA to be something that I had no choice over. In 30 states you can be fired for being gay and I was very, very aware of that and actually made aware of that by some officials on certain teams that I played on.”
Whether or not he felt like he would be losing money if he announced he was gay while he was still playing in the NBA:
“It’s not just money, it’s the career. It would’ve cost me the job that I had worked at for so long. Such an improbable job to have, especially if you go from a fat geeky kid from England and then in six years to transform myself into an NBA player, it just didn’t seem right that I would lose that opportunity to play never mind the money.”
If he felt he would’ve been supported if he came out:
“I think for the most part teammates would’ve been supportive though quietly so, not publicly so. I think that’s something I saw when I did come out. But I also knew that for example when I played in Utah, it wasn’t subtle messages, it was explicit messages that said ‘stay where you are. We may know that you’re gay but we don’t want to deal with the ramifications of you coming out publicly.’ I constantly felt under threat. I played for a team in Utah for example where our owner, I think he has passed away since, ran into our locker room when the film ‘Brokeback Mountain’ came out and screamed at everybody that he wasn’t going to let that film play on his cinemas and he happened to own most of the cinemas in Salt Lake City. That’s a not too subtle way of letting everybody know where he stands on the position of homosexuality and it’s not the kind of thing that inspires you to then stand up and say yes I’m gay. I absolutely was convinced that at that point I would’ve lost my job.”
How much scrutiny he feels players would get if they announced they were gay while they were still playing:
“I think a huge amount of scrutiny. I do think it’s really important that it’s not a question of, I think the blame is often placed at the feet of fans and their reaction and it’s blamed on players and their reactions and I don’t think that’s where it is. A lot of fans want to win and they don’t really care and a lot of teammates are like that. There’s always one or two Tim Hardaway’s out there. There’s a lot of pressure to stay in the closest so that you don’t cause any kind of uproar even though, and I spoke to David Stern recently and I know that he wants to make this league and embracing place for everybody but it’s very difficult to control some of the old fashioned thinking from some of the people in charge.”
On what it would take for a player to feel comfortable announcing that he or she was gay:
“We need an environment where there are not laws on the books probably that allow people to take their prejudice out on gay people which is currently still there. We need it to be even more explicit from the leadership of these sports that any type of bigotry, whether its racism, misogyny, homophobia, or anything else, it is not allowed and will not be stood for. I think that’s a message that the NBA is trying to send, but there are still some sports out there like the NFL where there are some outstanding individuals in terms of straight players who are advocates for the removal of homophobia from the sport. There’s still an awful lot of people who speak fairly openly, people like Tony Dungy and others, players and coaches, who speak about gay people with such derision and utter disrespect that it would make it very difficult for the people around them to come out.”