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Rick Welts and the Road Less Travelled…

After almost two years of residing permanently on my left ring finger – surviving through every sloppy burger, every time the dishes were done, every time I worked in the garden – my wedding ring has transformed from the smooth, glistening white-gold band it was in its youth, to a tarnished and scratched bronzed-silver relic.  So yesterday, with nothing better to do on a Sunday morning that felt much more like February than May, my wife and I took my ring back to the store from which it came to get it re-dipped.

It was a simple enough procedure: I gave them the ring, they gave me a receipt, we went on our way.  Yet, an hour later, as we sat at lunch, my wife could tell I was upset by something.  I was fidgeting, I was distracted, I was… missing my ring.  It’s not just that in two years I had grown used to the feel of it against my skin, it’s that I liked what it was: a symbol of my marriage and the woman I love.

I’m proud of my marriage; I love my partner; I love the lives we have and the lives we are building.  I want people to look at me and know that I am married, even if they cannot see my wife.  So it is that I sympathize with the difficult decision made by Phoenix Suns’ executive Rick Welts this week, when he contacted a newspaper reporter to declare that he is gay.

I make a very conscious effort with this blog to avoid the overt morality that is often engendered in sports.  In general, I believe that my morality is my own and I have neither the desire, nor the wherewithal to proselytize my readers.  Yet on this topic, I feel the need to pull the old soapbox out of the garage and climb up.  Put simply, Rick Welts has every right to live his life as I do.  He has every right to wear a ring on his finger that proclaims his love of another human being, whether that human be man or woman.

If we have learned anything over the last 15 years – from OJ, to steroids in baseball, to Kobe in Colorado, to Tiger’s Thanksgiving accident – it’s that athletes are not super heroes, nor are they worthy of a pedestal.  They are human beings, fraught with all the foibles that engulf the rest of us.  Yet, the decision of Welts, which is some corners might be deemed a choice of morality, is a watershed, heroic moment.  Not Jackie Robinson taking the field against the Braves, but important nonetheless.

Sports remains one of the last barriers to be broken down by a world increasingly accepting of homosexuals.  As NBA commissioner David Stern says of his conversation with Welts,

What I didn’t say at the time was: I think there’s a good chance the world will find this unremarkable,” Stern told The Times. “I don’t know if I was confusing my thoughts with my hopes.

The world may well find it unremarkable, and I certainly hope that they do, but that doesn’t make the challenge of coming out any less daunting for Welts.  He works in a field of overt masculinity.  A world in which manhood is constantly being defined, challenged, and postulated upon.  Yet, somehow, it is often in the places of outward masculinity that true manhood is hardest to discover.  Where insecurity over the sexuality of another still exists and people become discomfited by a man who wants nothing more than to be open about his life.

And why shouldn’t Welts be able to stand openly with a partner whom he loves?  Why is it that some people still believe there is inherent evil in homosexuality?  How have we not yet moved beyond that?  How do we still believe that being straight is a choice that can be made?  It is far too easy to look at someone else and tell them that what they are doing is wrong; to say that their life is immoral, their feelings fallacious, their needs specious.  As a culture, we would benefit from more people looking introspectively, asking themselves hard questions about who they are, how they live their life, and what they do to improve our world.  These are the questions that Rick Welts has surely asked himself over the past few weeks, months(?), years(?).

The answers that Welts has chosen from those introspective conversations, is that he wants to live openly, to help other young gay men or women find their way in sports, and to help the conversation of homosexuality in (male) sports become part of the public discourse.  It is a long, lonely road to trudge, yet Welts is in many ways in the perfect position to make this first step.

He plays for an owner who has already shown fortitude to take a public political stand, even if it is a controversial one.  His team’s coach is comfortable with his sexuality,

To me, what does it matter? I know he’s great at his job; he’s very organized and he does a brilliant job. To me, [his sexuality] is irrelevant.

“I’m happy for Rick because I think it takes a ton of weight off his shoulders,” Gentry added. “I’m glad for him because it puts him in a more relaxed state. Do I look at him any differently or judge him any differently? Not in a million years. I’ve dealt with Rick for the last seven years and he’s a great CEO and a great person.

And the franchise’s star player is far from your stereotypical jock.  Steve Nash doesn’t have a problem with Welts’ orientation,

Anyone who’s not ready for this needs to catch up,” Nash said. “He’s doing anyone who’s not ready for this a favor.

Well said, and to the point.  Welts is doing everyone a favor, by making his life the sledgehammer that takes the first real swing at the wall built around sexuality in men’s sports.  As we slowly move towards a culture in which gay men and women may marry whomever they like, splintering one of the last strongholds of intolerance is imperative.

Of course, Welts is not an active player and that remains an obtrusive barrier yet to be broken.  It seems to me, that within the next few years, an active male professional will come out of the closet and he will have been helped to do so, whether directly or indirectly, by Rick Welts.  And one day soon thereafter, another player will come out, and then another, and another, and soon nobody will care.  And why should they?

I fidget uncomfortably not being able to wear a ring that symbolizes my marriage, I cannot imagine the pain that exists when you have to hide that relationship entirely. Thanks to Rick Welts, hopefully one day soon, athletes who are gay will not be forced to hide their own wedding rings, but will be able to wear them as I do; a glistening, white-gold symbol of their love.

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