In a lengthy article published in Sunday’s New York Times, Rick Welts, president of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, publicly disclosed his homosexuality. The contrast in Mr. Welts’ story is jarring: in his public life, he played an integral role in the development of some of the NBA’s most popular programs (Slam Dunk Contest, anyone?) and became president of a perennially successful franchise. In his private life, he was forced to quietly grieve the death of his longtime partner as he continued to keep his sexuality a closely-guarded secret.
The intersection of sports and homosexuality has often been a taboo among players, fans, and journalists alike; as the Times article put it, popular perceptions of homosexuality do not seem to mesh with a business in which “manhood is often defined by on-court toughness and off-court conquest.” However, Mr. Welts’ decision comes on the heels of two recent incidents in which the NBA, under the leadership of Commissioner David Stern, has taken a more active and vocal stance than ever against on-court homophobia.
First, in April, Lakers star Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 after TV cameras caught him directing an anti-gay slur at a referee during a game. But this was no ordinary fine: the NBA Constitution purports to limit fines for payer misconduct to $50,000. Bryant’s fine is much higher, for example, than Josh Smith’s maximum $50,000 fine for making an obscene gesture at fans or Stephen Jackson’s $50,000 penalty for “verbally abusing” a referee during a game. It is very significant that the NBA views Bryant’s conduct as more serious than Smith’s or Jackson’s, precisely because of the additional element of homophobia that underlies Bryant’s indiscretion. In levying this unprecedented fine, the NBA sent a strong message to its players, role models for millions of young people, that such conduct – even if only inadvertently captured by TV cameras – will not be tolerated.
In addition, Suns players Grant Hill and Jared Dudley recently filmed a PSA exhorting viewers to refrain from “using ‘gay’ to mean ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid.’” The most novel and encouraging aspect of the 30-second spot, as the quoted language above might indicate, is its directness. Hill and Dudley do not speak in the vagaries that so often undermine these PSAs. Instead of merely encouraging young athletes to be “tolerant,” “open-minded,” or “respectful,” the players directly address anti-gay speech in sports and discuss, albeit briefly, why its use is offensive. Though a public-relations response to Bryant’s slip of the tongue was inevitable, the NBA went beyond the clichés that plague too many public-service announcements and instead chose to directly address homophobic language used on the court.
The outpouring of public support in the wake of Welts’ admission (from Commissioner Stern, Hall of Famer Bill Russell, the always-quotable Charles Barkley, and current All-Star Steve Nash, among many others) is a welcome sign that the tide is slowly turning. The NBA should be commended for contributing to this change through its recent strong, uncompromising, and direct approach to combating homophobia in sports.