In a front-page story in the New York Times on Monday, May 16, Rick Welts, president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns, announced that he is gay. Welts is believed to be the first major American professional-sports-team executive to make such a declaration; no male athlete in major American pro team sports has come out during his playing career. (Several, like former Utah Jazz basketball player John Amaechi, went public with their sexual orientation after retiring.) A few hours after the news went public, Welts sat with TIME to talk about why he made this decision, the rough moments along the way and what role he might play in educating people about homosexuality.
Why make this announcement now?
For me, really, it’s the culmination of a lifelong journey. In the last year, I’ve been giving it some serious thought. The time just seemed right for me personally. It’s not as a result of any other events that have taken place.
Give us the timeline of your decisionmaking.
I had a series of conversations with my 85-year-old mother last summer. We’ve had a very special relationship. It was important to me to discuss it with her and say, “If there was anything about this that could embarrass you or make you uncomfortable, end of story. Not going to happen.” She was incredibly encouraging and wanting me to do whatever it was that I felt needed to make me happier and more fulfilled as a human being.
Then I had a lot of conversations with friends and family. I would say there was a significant split of opinion over whether or not this was a great idea. “Why would you do that? I mean, you’ve got a great life and a wonderful career, you know — why would you really want to subject yourself to that?”
A tipping point came for me mid-January. I was having dinner with a longtime trusted adviser and needed to hear whether one of two paths would be better. First path being, I could have this conversation with the people that are important in my work life from the start of my career until today and accomplish my personal agenda. The other question I was asking was, Was there something more that could come of this if I took a more public route?
That was a catalyst for my own feelings. Being convinced that there could be an opportunity here to further the dialogue on this subject and perhaps even help some people that might be struggling with the same issue, who are wondering if they could pursue the thing they are most passionate about but worried that they can’t do that because of who they are.
What has the reaction been since you’ve publicly revealed your sexuality?
Overwhelming. I was actually on a flight from the West Coast to New York when the story posted online. I knew that was going to be the case: somewhere — 40, 50,000 feet in the air, with no wireless, out of touch with the world — somehow my life was changing forever down on the ground.
When the wheels touched down at JFK, I took a deep breath and reached for the BlackBerry and turned it on. It exploded with e-mails. From the time I touched down until I got to the gate, I think I was able to get through a dozen or more and probably had a few tears along the way. The best one I’ve gotten so far was from the general counsel of the NBA. The subject was “Suns Fined $1,000,000.” And his first line was, “I’m sure you’re getting a lot of e-mails, but I just wanted to get your attention. Just kidding about the fine.” It’s been an amazing 24 hours.
People understand why this subject is taboo in locker rooms, because of the macho environment. But is this also the case in sports boardrooms?
Yeah. I think the culture of male team sports really permeates the team atmosphere. I don’t really know how to explain it other than, there’s not open hostility, there’s nothing like that … and in fact, the NBA, of all the leagues, has probably fostered the greatest work environments that exist in sports. That said, there’s probably a conspiracy of silence, where it’s just not talked about. It’s not a comfortable subject to engage in, for whatever reason.
Do you think there are other executives in sports who are also gay and not saying anything?
Somehow, in my 40 years in this business, no one has ever asked me the question. I have never asked anyone else the question. But that’s maybe this idea of “This is something we don’t talk about.”
Do you think there will come a day that an active player in major American team sports will come out and say he is a homosexual?
That’s a hard one. Because, you know, careers are limited in duration. By definition, the players we’re talking about are very young.
I think when we look to other countries, when we look to Europe, it’s not quite as big a deal in the same way. So yeah, I think it’s inevitable: at some point, that happens. But I’ll understand the anguish that goes into that decision for someone who decides to take that step and risk, potentially, in their view, a very lucrative and successful career that has a very short duration.