In a business where players are routinely over six feet tall and beyond, Rick Welts (who calls himself “vertically challenged”) has certainly had no problem successfully rising within the National Basketball Association (NBA) executive ranks.
Why? Well, are you a basketball lover? Are you a fan of the NBA All-Star Weekend with its Slam Dunk contest and a game for the retired Legends of the NBRPA, the association of retired players from the NBA, ABA and Harlem Globetrotters? How about the WNBA? If so, you have Rick Welts to thank for much of the marketing genius behind these and other moves the NBA has made to rise from a once poorly-run business to today’s powerhouse.
Now the president and chief operating officer (COO) of the Oakland, California-based Golden State Warriors, the 2015 NBA Championship winners, Welts long and storied journey in professional basketball began in 1969 as a 16-year-old ball boy with his hometown team, the Seattle SuperSonics. And since then his career has been defined by sports. It’s hard to find a position in which Welts hasn’t served on the way up the management ladder, always moving the organization’s visibility and profits forward with his marketing and management savvy.
You might think that Welts’ life has been picture-perfect but that’s only his business career, nothing about his personal life. He certainly had a personal life but it was a shadow life that few knew about. There was a reason for that – Welts is gay.
For LGBT community members, coming out is an important rite of passage, finally allowing you to be honest about who you are. But that honesty also leaves you vulnerable to attack from others, carrying with it heavy physical, mental and emotional penalties in an attempt to escape the pain. Yet not being honest about it is its own particular prison of silence, requiring you to live a lie, to be eternally uncomfortable in your own skin so that others can continue being comfortable in theirs.
This has been particularly true in professional sports where the pervasive exaggerated macho attitude has, until Jason Collins’ announcement in 2013 continued to keep professional athletes and sports executives closeted until after they retire. But that changed on May 15, 2011 when Welts became the first highest-ranking and perhaps best-known executive in U.S. men’s professional team sports to come out publically while still president and COO of the Phoenix Suns.
This wasn’t an easy decision to make, according to Welts, because for the first time he was required to be public about his heretofore hidden personal life. And when public perception, to say nothing of a lack of job protection legislation in 28 states in the U.S. means that you can still be fired for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, a public announcement that you’re gay can turn your life upside down. Yet in his 50s, Welts began to think about his life and the sacrifices the silence had demanded of him, wondering if its resulting isolation had cost him too much.
When Welts made the decision to come out publically, he announced he was resigning from his position with the Suns to move to northern California to live with his new partner. When asked about the reactions from his announcement, Welts shared that he didn’t receive any negative feedback from it although he received thousands of emails and letters. Calling it a remarkable experience, he said that the results were way beyond his expectations, leaving him feeling incredibly humbled.
Welts’ willingness to be true to himself has helped move equality in professional sports forward in a way not seen before. If not for Welts’ courage to be true to himself and go public while in a high-level executive position in one of the big four U.S. team sports, it’s doubtful that the impenetrable wall of homophobia in professional sports could be breached in such a significant way.
Welts’ media image has continued to be very positive, focused on his remarkable marketing ability to shape and mold the Warriors franchise rather than on his being gay. But it’s obvious that his 2011 announcement laid the groundwork for Jason Collins’ 2013 announcement. It provided a foundation that finally enabled Collins to also be true to himself. And in a nice follow up, Jason’s twin, Jarron Collins is now an assistant coach with the Warriors.
Welts made a courageous decision to come out while working in one of our most homophobic industries, to stand up for his right to be a complete human being. And his desire that his story be used to help others come out, to offer them courage and support has, according to his many emails and now the historic public announcement of Jason Collins, accomplished that. Hopefully, there will soon be a day when stories like Rick Welts’ and Jason Collins’ will no longer be shocking or even necessary because the mentions of homophobia in the sports world will come only from old sports trivia questions.
By Connie Wardman
An adult educator by profession, Connie Wardman has a background in higher education, corporate America, public television and international association management. She is currently the editor-in-chief for Compete Magazine.