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3Qs: ‘A discussion that cannot be muted’

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Last week, Phoenix Suns President Rick Welts told The New York Times that he is gay, becoming the first man in a prominent position in men’s professional sports to go public with his homosexuality. We asked Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Sport in Society, a Northeastern University research center, to explain the dearth of openly gay male athletes in professional sports.

Does Welts’ announcement make it easier for athletes to come out? Why do men’s sports lag behind the rest of society in accepting homosexuality?
Welts’ announcement is a monumental moment in professional sports history because it engages us in a conversation not only about gay rights, but about how important it is to be introspective, to challenge our narrow construct of manhood and to practice humanity in a manner that reflects what it really means to be humane.

Having said that, Welts’ announcement will not open a floodgate of players coming out. Social change is incremental in any venue and professional sports are often considered a bastion of old-school ultimate machismo. On the other hand, Hall of Fame basketball player Charles Barkley has not only voiced support for Welts, but has declared that he had played with gay teammates. Ability, not sexual orientation, he said, should be what defines a man.

How would fans, teammates and club officials respond to an openly gay home run-hitting slugger or a Hall-of-Fame caliber quarterback?
Professional sports are a performance-based structure, but a successful, high-profile gay athlete would face similar burdens to those confronted by players like African-American quarterback Doug Williams, who led the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl Victory in 1988. I am sure his team’s fans reveled in the glory of the win, even if they failed to give him the credit he deserved for handling the pressure of the game as well as the weight of the racism that pervaded much of our society.

Success changes the game, as well as the conversation about the ignorance of false perception. Nations and notions change when people and leaders forge ahead. Rick Welts has opened the door for those leaders to emerge.

What advice do you have for gay athletes who are worried about going public with their homosexuality?
It is hard for me to give advice from the safety of my platform. I don’t carry the same weight on my shoulders or the fear of being ostracized. This is an individual choice, one that takes considerable reflection and thought. Leaders will rise to the fore when the time is right for them. Welts showed amazing grace and guts in coming out and starting a discussion that cannot be muted. Others will follow. I applaud Charles Barkley, The Phoenix Suns, The San Francisco Giants and a host of others who have already taken the conversation forward. All movements need momentum and Rick Welts has provided the necessary push.