Assessing the NBA’s gay future

For those not interested in thinking about the growing relationship between sports and social issues, this is your warning to stop reading. Whether you like it or not, as a basketball fan, there are going to be times when sports and society become intertwined. Now is one of those times.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Phoenix Suns are not making a ton of headlines right now, at least not for basketball reasons. While talk will soon turn to what the Suns will do with the 13th pick in the draft, the big news on Planet Orange right now is the recent public announcement by Suns president and CEO Rick Welts that he is gay.

The immediate reactions, while mostly positive and supportive, ranged from praise of Welts’ courage to questions of why the fact is newsworthy. But no matter the attitude, it got the basketball world talking about a topic often avoided like the plague in all sports. From Charles Barkley to current Sun Grant Hill, many big basketball names are making their opinion known.

The NBA has been the most progressive of the major sports leagues in recent years and the Suns have been one of the more progressive teams with forward-thinking players who chose to take a stand against an immigration bill in the middle of a playoff series last year. The events following Welts’ announcement and Hill and Jared Dudley’s anti-bullying PSA only further solidify that.

But they have also sparked a number of questions about what is next in the NBA’s gay future. In the context of recent events, I’ll try to address those questions, citing the relevant sources.

When will the NBA see an openly gay player?

It’s hard to tell when the NBA environment will get to where a player is comfortable being openly gay, but Welts’ coming out is a step toward that. An out executive is much different than an out player for a number of reasons, but the fact that a prominent figure in an NBA organization is able to be out and so supported is an indication that at some point the same will apply to a player.

Former NBA player John Amaechi, who came out after retirement, said last week it will likely still be a while before a player feels comfortable coming out. One of the big reasons, Amaechi said, is the amount of prominent sports figures who “speak about gay people with such derision and utter disrespect that it would make it very difficult for the people around them to come out.”

While executives, and college athletes like former Villanova player Will Sheridan, coming out is progress, it may be at least a few more seasons before an active player does so.

However, it may be the case — and completely reasonable if it was — that a player does not feel a need to make his sexuality public. He may just share it with his teammates. Straight players do not publicly announce that they are straight so gay players might not feel a need to publicly announce they are gay.

Will an openly gay player have to be a star?

Amaechi made a point that he didn’t feel he could come out because his talent was replaceable. The implication is that a team would avoid signing a marginal player who could be a distraction or hinder team chemistry.

But if the player were a star with talent possessed by a select group of players in the league, would his sexuality be less of an issue? Absolutely. If an MVP-caliber player came out, he may encounter criticism and disrespect, but he would still start every game and still get paid top dollar. Hard to argue any other scenario.

But how much have the times changed since Amaechi was playing? Would a role player be risking his job by coming out? It depends, probably on the organization, but at the end of the day every team is trying to win and any player who can help make that happen somewhere is likely going to have a job.

Would teammates be comfortable with an openly gay player?

Sheridan’s teammates at Villanova all knew and didn’t care. Amaechi has said his teammates more or less knew but did not address it. Barkley said he had teammates that he knew were gay and he was still comfortable and never felt like they were going to hit on him or watch him undress.

“A guy is never going to put himself in that situation in a professional locker room,” Barkley said. “It never crossed my mind, and I never felt any different about the guy.”

Though players as a whole are probably even more open-minded and tolerant now than in Barkley’s days, not all will feel the same way Barkley did. This will likely be a case-by-case thing, but if teammates trust each other, it should be a non-issue.

Would being openly gay put a target on a player’s back?

You would like to think that players would not use a player’s sexual identity to get in his head on the court, but if Kevin Garnett’s “cancer patient” incident with Charlie Villanueva is any indication, few things are off limits when it comes to trash talk.

Be it out of legitimate dislike of homosexuals, immaturity or over-competitiveness, more than one player is likely to use a gay player’s difference against him. That’s simply a sad but true reality. However, being openly gay would not necessarily make the player an intentional target of malicious play. If a gay player gets fouled hard on a drive, it probably would have happened if he were straight, too.

How would fans react to an openly gay player?

Like many of the questions posed here, this one is not black and white. It is a fact that there are people out there who hate homosexuals. Those people would not accept or embrace a gay player. But there are probably more people who simply do not care about a player’s sexuality as long as he can play basketball well.

And if the support Welts has received is anything like what a player would receive, then the NBA might just be ready for an openly gay player sooner than we think.

Tags: Charles Barkley Grant Hill Jared Dudley John Amaechi Phoenix Suns Rick Welts

  • Michael Schwartz

    I’d like to add that I feel sports teams are leaders in kind of setting the agenda for many young, impressionable sports fans. From previous comments, I know many of you would prefer Hill and Dudley to focus on improving their games rather than taking part in PSAs on this issue and many of you would prefer Welts to keep his sexual orientation to himself. I know this does not impact how many of you feel about certain social issues that you already have hardcore set beliefs about.

    However, I feel like there are so many young kids who look up to the Nashs and Hills of the world and a franchise like the Suns that to see a top executive come out and be showered with love rather than derision could make a dent in the thinking of the aforementioned children.

    Charles Barkley used to say he’s not a role model, but he was wrong. When kids see their favorite players being so accepting of their boss coming out it sends an important message that it’s OK to be gay in the world of sports.

  • Lloyd I. Cadle

    Tyler –

    You state, “The Suns have been one of the more progressive teams with forward-thinking players…..”, regarding taking a stance “against the immigration issue” and also coming out with a CEO that is gay.

    What makes players taking a stand against the immigration issue “progressive and forward thinking?”

    How does one make a determination that if a player is against the immigration issue he is a progressive, forward thinker?

    Conceivably, couldn’t a person for immigration 1070 be a progressive, forward thinker?

    What is the criteria that you use to determine if a person is “foreward thinking” or backward thinking on this issue?

    On the issue of Mr. Welts going public on his preference of men over women being “progressive and forward thinking,” what is the standard or criteria that you use to determine if it is forward or backward thinking?

    On this issue, does it even matter if forward thinking is wrong or right? Or is it just change is what determines what is progressive, forward thinking?

    On a previous statement on the issue of Mr. Welts, Steve Nash makes the statement, “anyone who’s not ready for this needs to catch up.”

    Catch up to what? His way of thinking on this issue? Where does Steve Nash get his standard or criteria in determining that folks need to catch up to his way of thinking?

    Is the thinking of Steve Nash really progressive, forward thinking? Or perhaps, folks with an opposing viewpoint may be progressive, forward thinking?

    Is an athlete a role model? Just because an athlete speaks out or acts incongruously, does not qualify him as a role model, progressive or a forward thinker.

  • Lloyd I. Cadle

    Last add sports and “forward-thinking” -

    No one loves sports and our Phoenix teams more than I do. We attend Suns, Diamondbacks and Cards games as often as we can.

    One person on this website indicated that they listen to what Steve Nash says to help form an opinion.

    If this country has regressed to the point where we have Steve Nash, Rick Welts, or even Kurt Warner setting the tone for what we think, we are in even worse shape than I thought.

    Folks need to study political, social and theological issues on their own, and not sit by, and let athlet’s determine what is progressive, forward-thinking.

    Heaven help us!

  • Momochi Sandayu

    I get the impression you feel Steve Nash, Kurt Warner, or Rick Welts are incapable of studying political and theological issues, and coming to their own personal conclusions. I get the vibe there is the belief that they are all “dumb jocks” and don’t know enough about the world around them to make comments on anything other than endoresments and their sport.

    Plato is widely regarded as having a keen intellect(a member of his own sort of “Big 3″, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle), and was an athelete in the Panhellenic Games (The Olympics are part of this cycle of games). How many would say that he wasn’t qualified to comment on society as he experienced it due to his athletic nature? (For the record, I’m not saying Steve Nash is a contemporary Plato, lol)

    How much studying do you feel one needs to do? On what sources/subjects should they study in order for you to feel that they would have the knowledge to comment on said topics?

    Do you personally know how much Steve Nash, Grant Hill, and Jared Dudley have studied, or resarched these social issues? What experiences in their lives have shaped their world view?

    I think its fair to say that “Foward thinking” is somone who is working in the present for their vision of the future. I don’t think it would be wise to use it in the sense that only those who agree with yoru world vision are “foward thinking”, but I wouldn’t disagree that there are probably many that use it in that way.

    Just an FYI, I respect your freedom to believe whatever you feel to be true, and I enjoy the discussion.

  • Steve

    I agree that progressive and forward-thinking are ridiculous terms. It demeans the entirety of people who take a different stance.

  • Lloyd I. Cadle

    One ex-player that is fun to listen to is the Cards Ron Wolfley. He does a morning sports talk show here in Phoenix, and he combines intelligence with a great sense of humor.

    He does a great job in covering the Suns and gives a lot of insight as to the ups and downs of playing pro sports.

  • Michael Schwartz

    @Lloyd I actually added in the aforementioned statement about the Suns as Tyler’s original sentence only referred to the NBA as being the most progressive of the major sports leagues. I think Momochi kind of answered this question for me in his above comment second paragraph from the bottom where he says forward thinking is about working in the present for a vision of the future. In this way forward thinking refers to the Suns as an organization working toward a time when an executive coming out actually is seen as a non-issue rather than being the groundbreaking announcement Welts’ was.

  • Giancarlo Paraliticci

    Michael Great article, totally agree with you!!
    When you admire someone and that someone is your idol, you like everything good and bad about that person, and live by there example, Steve, Rick and the Suns Organization are great example to follow!! The Suns are one of the most successful franchise even if the haven’t win a championship they have been close the have a mark in the History of the NBA they have always done it the The Good and hard way, not buying there way to success!!

  • Chris

    this whole thing is embarrassing. I’d love to hear the all knowing, all wise, Tim Hardaway’s take….. For the record I am all for gay marriage and anything else that gives them the same rights as me. And I despise gay bashing of any type. But I gotta tell ya, at this current rate we are gonna have a very very gay society in the near future…. Maybe thats a good thing, I dont know…….
    I do know that I have faults. I hate flaming homo’s like Perez Hilton. Cant stand em. Way too gay, almost to the point of being offensive. I also hate seeing gay kids programming on tv. Saw a kid come out of the closet on a Nickelodeon show recently and was sickened as my way too impressionable nephew sat there watching.
    Like I said I know I have my shortcomings and I am trying to work on it. And I know Im the bad guy here for even asking, but what was so wrong about the “dont ask dont tell” good old days.

  • Joe

    If you want equity, why don’t we just allow polygamy and prostitution. Don’t polygamysts have the right marry as they see fit? Don’t prostitutes have the right to pursue happiness like the rest of us? What about pedophiles? Shouldn’t they have the right to have sex as they freely choose? What if the minor gives written consent (what magically changes in a person at 18 that makes them an adult all of the sudden, and why do many countries with similar laws consider people adults before 18?)?

    Relativism will get you nowhere. There are people in this world who literally think it is the right thing to do to murder and steal. Why can’t they live the way they want to live? Some people honestly believe that anyone with differing religious views should be killed. Why can’t they practice their religion as they understand it? It’s not FAIR!

    I’m not trying to say homosexuals are a bunch of polygamyst pedophile prostitutes who do nothing but steal, kill, and make martyrs of innocent bystanders. In fact, I don’t agree that homosexuality is right. However, I also don’t think lying, cheating, stealing, name-calling, jealousy, anger, etc., are right. I think homosexuality is a perversion of the truth, just as those other things are, so I would never say a homosexual is worse than me, because I know I do every other one of those things.

    But we don’t encourage anyone to live that way, do we? We don’t teach our children to lie and manipulate as if it is a good thing. We don’t teach them to pick fights and throw tantrums. We don’t encourage that amongst our peers. Accepting people for what they are and encouraging their bad behavior are two different things.

    You can accept someone for who they are and still not support their lifestyle. My grandpa is an alcoholic. I still love him because he’s my grandpa, but I don’t give him a bottle of Jack for Christmas every year.

    There are things that are right, and there are things that are wrong. Relativism (disguised by our culture as “tolerance”) is not a valid way of thinking. It begins nowhere and leads nowhere.

  • Al

    Am pretty sure there is an NBA player that is GAY. His first name is Rudy. He is openly known as GAY.