As you have no doubt heard (props to Sean in Vancouver for the FanShot) Phoenix Suns CEO Rick Welts has come out to the media, friends, and co-workers that he is gay. Though not unheard of, this is notably rare in the world of professional sports. Usually we hear news after the person in question has left the field. Welts admits that his statement is not just for himself, but in hopes that folks following in his path will know there's precedent and support for their journey. It doesn't hurt us any to offer Mr. Welts support in his.
This topic isn't talked about much. Maybe that's OK. But the absence of open discussion does have negative effects. This issue affects more than Mr. Welts. With the number of athletes, coaches, management workers, and assorted officials in major sports leagues in the United States it's statistically unimaginable that he's the only homosexual. I feel for those folks who might like to be open but can't. It's not just the pressure or the publicity, it's that we've left this undiscussed so long that we don't even have verbiage to do it. In the first two paragraphs of this post I've already struggled to find the right verbs to describe what Rick Welts has done. The instinctive descriptors were all variations of "admitted he was gay" and "confessed he was gay". When an average person's instinct jumps to words more appropriate to a courtroom trial than an offer of support, something is wrong. An already slanted environment on top of the pressure of the athlete's culture...that's too much. For that reason alone, more needs to be said. It's not enough to just nod or say, "OK". We need to become more comfortable with this and with each other no matter who we are. We need to put thought and words into this subject just on a basic level of human decency, if not ensuring as sports fans that the next Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky or even R.C. Buford or Jerry West doesn't end up with a broken (and maybe shortened) life if he also happens to be gay.
I don't know exactly what should be said, but I'm going to try to add my voice. Apologies in advance if this falls short.
In our society sports are considered one of the bastions of traditional manhood. Therefore issues of gender and sexuality make people itchy when they arise in a sports context. Homosexuality has been perceived as a threat to manhood, virility, the masculine aura of the games. That's part of why this has remains an issue in 2011, a time when most people would shrug at a similar announcement in their office or factory.
I have no interest in divorcing sports from their masculine trappings. Besides being wary of the law of unintended consequences I also believe there's value in sports and in the characteristics with which they are imbued which are in turn a function of how they're perceived, male-dominated baggage and all. Emasculation is not equality. The gains from pursuing an argument against the male-ness of sports in our culture don't stand up to the possible losses. I'll leave that to others.
But even acquiescing to viewing sports in the imperfectly male-centered way we do, I hope we can agree on a couple things.
1. To the extent "manhood" is wrapped up in sports it's evidenced through participation. When you run and jump and shoot and swing you are demonstrating those positive (for us, "manly") characteristics. When you learn to win and lose with grace, function as part of a team, battle through injuries, and contribute to a whole that is greater than the self you are said to have learned them. These prized values are not external to the game, laid upon it as if the sport were a neutral receptacle. The values come from the game itself. If this is true, anybody participating in the game is, by definition, embodying the desired, valuable characteristics regardless of their sexuality, race, nationality, economic status, or even gender.
Transformational power is part of the sacred canon of sports in our society. Coaches across the land have told us it's not what you bring to the game that makes you a "man", rather playing the game that turns you into a "man". If we want to hold onto this mantra of sports and manliness, if we want to be consistent about it, it should hold true for homosexual as well as heterosexual people. If a person of homosexual orientation is participating at that same, adequate-to-excellent level along with everybody else, how are they less of a "man"? Does the sport suddenly lose its power and purpose in their presence? And how does that presence make anyone around them less of a "man" as long as those around them are still participating?
2. Contrary to popular belief, the creed "You different than me! Me kill you now!" is not a necessary component of manhood, nor is it an effective way to prove your manhood. That's not manly, that's a jerk. Most men I know reject that kind of outlook. Not being able to stand-or worse, being threatened by-something different than you is not a sign of strength but weakness. Sports teach us to respect the other team even in cases where we diverge in backgrounds, have a strong rivalry, or are getting our blocks knocked off by them. Sports bridge cultures and nations, uniting rather than dividing. That is their power. The thrill of being on a team (or even being a fan of a team) comes through connection. Dissolve that unity in favor of intolerance and you have lost both the means and the reason to compete. Teams, leagues, federations, fan bases fracture. Take away that respect for each other for the sake of the sport and conflict devolves inevitably into animosity. That's not so good on your school playground and nobody's going to pay $40 a pop to see it. It doesn't make you cheer anymore, it makes you sick.
If we are to concede that sports and manhood are irretrievably linked--allowing that cultural goodness and meaning come from that union--we must take the time to define manhood in its most productive, least damaging sense. This is necessary for the good of sports and the people who participate in them. A definition that tears apart both cannot stand. Even definitions that cheapen have no place. Defining something by its antithesis and harming its followers thereby is one of the early steps on the road to ruin. Anything less than respect for Rick Welts and his position as CEO plants our feet on that path. We're not denying a man, we're denying the sport itself, robbing it of its supposed power for goodness (respect, achievement, transformation and growth). How many opportunities do we take that way, not just from the homosexual community but from everyone who participates in or loves watching these games?
The foundation of sport is reward for merit. If a person can do their job well they should be able to do it freely, without extracurricular condemnation and they should be praised and accepted for the work they do. There's no reason an executive, player, coach, referee, front office worker, broadcaster, or anyone else should have to live in fear of revealing who they are just because they work in the sporting field. Sports people--including fans--should be the first to say, "This isn't an issue for us," not the last. Anything less denies what the endeavor is supposed to be about.
Taken to its logical conclusion, that denial becomes a handicap. The Portland Trail Blazers passed on Kevin Durant in the 2007 NBA Draft in favor of Greg Oden. Perhaps they thought Oden was the better player. Perhaps they thought Oden would be a better fit for the team. Rumors have swirled that the Blazers may have even known about Oden's health issues and still made that call. It turned out to be wrong, at least to this date. People have thrown fits over this but for the most part I have been sanguine about both decision and prospects. It may turn out to be a mistake of the highest order but presumably some reasonable rationale justified it. This is sports. Stuff happens, even when you have the #1 overall pick in a can't-miss situation. That's part of the game.
Because it's part of the game I'm still fine with the Blazers brain trust. I can even see ways in which their decision made sense. But imagine if (completely hypothetically) you and I found out that the Blazers thought Durant was the better player but passed on him because he was gay. Wouldn't you be screaming for their heads, if not for ethical reasons at least for complete and utter stupidity? That's not part of the game, that's killing your chances to compete in the game over a matter inconsequential to its play.
It's unlikely we'll ever see an example that obvious, but this is an ultra-competitive field. You cannot afford to give up any edge, even a small one. If you've got time and luxury to fret about sexual orientation you're going to get beat by someone who bypasses the hand-wringing and takes advantage of talent and opportunity instead of worrying what kind of package the talent and opportunity come wrapped in.
Commendations and support to Mr. Welts for having the courage to let people know about his journey in order to smooth the path for others. Here's hoping that we'll see a day where that kind of courage isn't a prerequisite for being affiliated with a sports team when you're gay. The world will be better off when we care about our games and the people that play them more than we care about our prejudices.