NBA Exec's Coming Out Returns League to Forefront of Social Issues

On Monday, the New York Times published a story on Rick Welts, currently the president of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, in which Welts first publicly announced that he is gay. But this is far from the first time that the National Basketball Association has found itself on the front lines of a heated cultural issue.

Indeed, this isn’t the first time the NBA and GLBT issues have crossed paths, as the Times story points out. Former player John Amaechi came out in 2007, sparking a not-always-pleasant media frenzy. More recently, Kobe Bryant was hit with a $100,000 fine for using an anti-gay slur during a game. Other sports have had their own LGBT stories within the last few weeks as well; hockey player Sean Avery made public his support for marriage equality, prompting an agent to write a series of anti-equality tweets.

But the NBA has, more than any other pro league, been out front. By apparent sheer coincidence, the Association began airing a new anti-slur PSA just when Welt’s story was being sent to the Times‘s printers:

And well before Welts, Amaechi, or Bryant, the NBA was home to the public face of HIV/AIDS: Magic Johnson, one of the league’s biggest stars, retired in 1991 after testing HIV-positive. (video) Before that, the NBA was deeply involved in various drug issues, especially during the 1980s, culminating with the death of Len Bias, freshly drafted, from a drug overdose. More generally, the league has always struggled with racism, as the most prominently-black of all the major pro sports.

So it’s fitting, then, that the NBA is leading the charge in the fight against homophobia. The world of men’s team sports remains one of the most buttoned-up parts of American society when it comes to LGBT issues–something Welts talks about both in the Times piece and in a Monday podcast interview. Those of us in the law can easily get caught up in the next court case, the next ballot initiative, the next amendment, and all of those things matter; there’s a broader cultural side, though. The more people like Welts, and leagues like the NBA, push conversation on the non-legal side, the more our fights in courtrooms and ballot-boxes can make a real difference.

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