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Slurs Highlight Difficulty Pro Sports Have With Gays

NBA players' use of gay slur reverberates through league

It surprises some of my friends that I’m a sports fan and a sports writer. I’m gay, and the assumption–even among my friends–is that "gay" and "sports" are antithetical.

That assumption, of course, is wrong. But it’s widely held.

It’s that assumption Rick Welts, president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns, who has 40 years of experience in sports, wanted to publicly set aside when he decided to come out.

"Nobody’s comfortable in engaging in a conversation," Welts told the New York Times in the story that broke the news, "This is one of the last industries where the subject is off limits."

The relevance of Welts’ admission is that we're still waiting for a male athlete to declare his homosexuality while still playing sports. A handful of athletes–David Kopay Roy Simmons and Esera Tuaolo in football; Glenn Burke and Billy Bean in baseball; and John Amaechi in basketball–have waited until they were no longer active players before coming out.

Is it any wonder. Sunday night, the Chicago Bulls’ Joakim Noah let loose with the "faggot" bomb directed at a heckling Miami Heat fan. The NBA handed down a $50,000 fine, even after Noah apologized for the slur. In April, Kobe Bryant used the same word, but directed it at a referee. That incident came just a day after Welts had a meeting with NBA Commissioner David Stern to let Stern know Welts planned to come out of the closet.

After Ameachi’s coming out in 2007, former Chicago-area basketball player and later NBA star Tim Hardaway said during an interview on a Miami radio station, "Well, you know I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don’t like gay people and I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic." Both Bryant, who earned a $100,000 fine from the league, and Hardaway later apologized for their remarks.

In the wake of Welts, Jared Max, host of the ESPN Radio’s New York morning show, came out on air by asking his audience: "Are we ready to have our sports information delivered by someone who is gay?" Whether they were ready or not, it was already happening.

Charles Barkley, a basketball Hall of Famer, said in a radio interview for 106.7 The Fan in D.C. that he’s sure he has played with gay teammates in his career. And it didn’t bother him at all. "I’d rather have a gay guy who can play than a straight guy who can’t play," Barkley said.

When sports figures like Welts, Max and former Villanova basketball player Will Sheridan–who also recently announced he is gay–take themselves out of the shadows, it serves as a powerful example to other players, gay or straight, that sexual orientation doesn’t matter when it comes to sports.

At my first professional journalism job out of college, one of my editors gave me a tour of the newsroom, pointing out the various departments and pausing to introduce co-workers. At our very last stop, I met a woman with a unisex name along the lines of "Pat." She shook my hand and within five minutes of our acquaintance, she began a pronouncement with, "You know, as a lesbian…"

I was a little taken aback. My sensitivity was driven in large part by a deep aversion to coming out myself. I was gay and didn’t want anyone else, particularly co-workers, to find that out. I certainly wasn’t going to announce it.

My rookie reporter days were more than a decade ago. I’ve since come to the conclusion that being open with co-workers about my orientation is an important part of being authentic and honest about myself with the people I spend most of my day with. Welts came to that same conclusion.

ESPN sportscaster Jeremy Schaap asked Welts during an interview, "What will it take for an active player to do the same?"

"Well, it’s going to be a very personal journey," Welts replied. "Because you know there’s nobody who’s gone before. … It will take an act of heroism for somebody in the midst of their career to do that, and I get it. It’s going to be harder for a player than it was for me."

But in taking the step he has, Welts blazed a trail for that player to one day share in the act of heroism of being true to himself.