- The Washington Times - Monday, May 16, 2011

In other news, Phoenix Suns president Rick Welts announced that he’s gay. He’s undoubtedly not the only such executive in the league. Surely other teams also have homosexuals on the payroll. About the only thing remarkable would be a discovery that Welts, actually, is the NBA’s sole employee who prefers same-sex relationships.

But rare is the occasion when homosexuality and team sports are mentioned in the same story. So we must pause and take notice.

Welts‘ proclamation in Sunday’s New York Times is the biggest step forward for gays in sports since 2007, when John Amaechi became the first former NBA player to come out. Amaechi’s revelation led to recollections of former Major League Baseball player Billy Bean, who came out in 1999, three years after his retirement. In 2002, former NFL nose tackle Esera Tuaolo announced on HBO’s Real Sports that he’s gay, making him the third former NFL player to come out after David Kopay (1975) and Roy Simmons (1992).

Now here are the male athletes in major team sports who came out while active:

The next one will be the first one.

Welts, 58, isn’t a player but he’s the closest we’ve come, a man prominently employed in pro sports - where discussions about homosexuality are uncommon, uneasy and usually unseemly outside the locker room. Having spent 40 years in the business as he rose from ball boy to NBA executive to team president, Welts doesn’t appear to be risking much with his disclosure. He sought and gained the support of commissioner David Stern, NBA legend Bill Russell and two-time MVP Steve Nash before going public.

Fear of reprisal kept him from revealing his sexuality previously and I can’t say that I blame him. His career easily could’ve been derailed without him ever knowing for sure that his preference was the reason. Certainly no employer - or prospective employer - would admit it if true. No one would even mention it, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

“This is one of the last industries where the subject is off limits,” Welts told The New York Times. “Nobody’s comfortable in engaging in a conversation.”

That’s because men’s major team sports is a bastion for unashamed Neanderthal thinking, where perhaps the only thing defined more narrowly than masculinity is the purpose of women.

Of course it shouldn’t matter which gender Welts - or one of his players - prefers to sleep with. But sports seem to have a preponderance of guys like C.J. Leslie. A North Carolina State basketball player, Leslie tweeted last week: “I’m not sayin I hate gays but that’s something I would not wnt n my locker room.”

They’re already in the locker room. And the notion that teammates wouldn’t want to play with an openly gay teammate doesn’t make sense if we’re talking about a superstar. I suspect players would get over it real quick if it turned out that LeBron James or Tom Brady or Albert Pujols or Alex Ovechkin were homosexuals. I think the opportunity to chase championships would override irrational fears of being seen naked in the shower.

Welts‘ admission moves us closer to the day when an active player isn’t afraid to come out. Phoenix Suns players Grant Hill and Jared Dudley filmed PSAs recently that condemn the bullying of gay teens. New York Rangers forward Sean Avery, who recently appeared in a video advertisement that supports gay marriage, told Canada’s Sun newspaper chain earlier this year that he’d support a gay teammate. “I’ll stand beside him in the dressing room while he tells his teammates he is gay,” Avery said. “Maybe if Sean Avery is there, they would have less of a problem with it.”

Athletes don’t have to agree with a teammate’s lifestyle to accept him as their teammate. Christian athletes can still hold fast to the belief (as I do) that fornication, adultery and homosexuality are sins. But since fornicators and adulterers aren’t constantly belittled, disparaged, criticized, ostracized and sometimes terrorized, gays shouldn’t be either. Heterosexual players who are so-called “believers,” yet have sex outside of marriage and/or with spouses not their own, shouldn’t feel “holier than thou.” They should be able to hate the sexual sin (theirs included) but love the sexual sinner - straight or gay.

Here’s hoping that Welts and whoever becomes the first active player to come out are treated no differently after the fact. Because sexuality in men’s pro sports shouldn’t be a big deal.

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