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.
Do you think what you’re doing now could act as a stepping stone for an active athlete to make a similar declaration?
You know, it’s such a personal experience for anybody who has gone through this. I wouldn’t want to impose that experience on anybody else. I do hope that it’s a catalyst for dialogue. Maybe the subject can be discussed more than it’s been discussed before, in a more intelligent and compassionate way than the silence that kind of permeates the industry now.
You had already made the decision to come out before Kobe Bryant uttered an anti-gay slur on national television [during an April 12 game]. What was your feeling about that?
The irony of it for me was just this incredible timing that took place that week. I had prearranged to be in New York to meet with [NBA commissioner] David Stern on Monday morning [April 11]. We had our conversation. I flew home to Phoenix that day. On Tuesday there was a public-service announcement that the NBA had arranged, that I had nothing to do with, being filmed in our arena with Grant Hill and Jared Dudley, two of the Suns’ players, talking about the use of the word gay as inappropriate and not meaning what kids thought it meant and being hurtful to people who are in that situation.
And then that night was the game that Kobe went off. The next day, he was fined by the guy I sat with on Monday having a discussion on the same topic. For me, it was just a crazy coincidence of things. But you know, I think Kobe has apologized. I know he regrets it. I think in the long term, as events unfold, it will be one more subject that can be talked about.
You mentioned the conversation with Stern, for whom you worked in the NBA office for many years. You told him you were gay and that you planned to come out. What was that conversation like?
It was great. I got a big hug at the end, which was certainly a first in our 30-year friendship. He had a lot of encouragement that he would be incredibly supportive if I chose to go this route.
Did he apologize for suspending those guys in 2007? [During the second round of the 2007 playoffs, the NBA suspended Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw of Phoenix for one game for leaving the bench during an altercation. Many fans thought the suspension cost the Suns the series, which they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in six games.]
You bring up a very open wound. As close as we are, there was one three-month period, post-Suns-Spurs series that year, that we didn’t speak, which was a very painful time for my professional career but a lot worse for the Suns, because we would have won the championship.
You were a ball boy for the Seattle SuperSonics at age 16. Talk about how you worked through your feelings, being in sports at such a young age.
I guess I was one of those kids who always felt like it wasn’t really who I was. I would give myself deadlines. “O.K., it’s all right if I feel this way when I’m 13 years old, but, you know, by the time I’m 15, it’ll change. I just know it will.” Maybe when I was 15, then it was 17, that became 19, and, you know, I could agree with myself that I wouldn’t worry about it, because that wasn’t who I was and those feelings that I didn’t want to have would go away. Obviously, that never happened. [Laughs.]
Bill Russell, the NBA legend who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February, is an adviser and friend. What was his reaction when you told him about this?
He was the first person that I decided that I was really going to reach out to. I had never been to his house before, and I’d known him for 30 years. But he invited me because he knew there was something kind of important. And walking up to that door was a big moment for me — there he was, in his black athletic suit, with his green hat with a shamrock on it and the number 6. We walked into his TV room and sat in these big comfortable chairs where he watches his TV. Barack Obama’s picture is sitting right next to me, with his inscription to Bill saying what an inspiration he had been to the President. I took a deep breath and said what I had to say.
And he was, you know, he was Bill. “Was that all you got?” He said all the right things about our friendship and what it meant to him, and nothing could change, and anything he could do to be supportive. That was the first person in my work life that I had been able to have that conversation with.
What has been the hardest moment for you over the years?
In my personal life, I had lost a partner of 17 years in 1994, at a time where I didn’t think there was any knowledge of my sexuality in the NBA office. Having to navigate through, really, the loss of a spouse without being able to have that be known to the people around you was probably the most personally difficult. It wasn’t a motivator for me to come out, but it was a private anguish that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
So where do sports and sexuality go from here?
I hope that it gives the thousands of people that I’ve come in contact with over the history of my sports career at least a little moment to think about this issue, think about the people they’re working with and the environment it has created in their own situations. I think it’s going to evolve. And frankly, I think it’s going to happen in the NBA before it happens anywhere else.
What role do you think you can now play in educating people about the issues surrounding homosexuality?
I think I’m going to be guided by the whole experience. There’s no preconceived idea of where this takes me. It’s all still sinking in a little bit. Whether or not this is my 15 minutes of fame or whether it becomes something more I’m a part of going forward, I’m really going to let the experience kind of guide me. I hope in some small measure that at some point in time, someone looks back at this and [says], “You know, we took a little step forward here.”