Warriors Exec Lauds Collins’s Signing
When David Kopay became the first prominent American male athlete to come out of the closet in 1975, he had no social media to help spread the word, he did not reach out to a high-profile gay rights organization to counsel him in his revelation, and he did not tell his story with a cover essay in Sports Illustrated.
A vastly different world beckons Jason Collins, the first player in any of the four major American professional men’s team sports to come out. He was en route Sunday, February 23 to Staples Center in Los Angeles to sign a 10-day National Basketball Association contract with the Brooklyn Nets - they were the New York Nets in Kopay’s day, playing on Long Island in the now-defunct American Basketball Association - when his smartphone (not offered commercially until 1993) gave him a text message (not offered until 1994) of congratulations from Rick Welts, president and chief of operations for the Golden State Warriors, for making history.
Welts was one of the developers behind the scenes who helped to make the NBA the multimedia circus it is today. He was working with the Phoenix Suns in 2011 when he became the first major executive in any league front office to come out; he joined the Warriors’ front office later that year. Now he’s on the advisory board of You Can Play, an initiative to help wipeout barriers of homophobia in sports.
"I’m not expecting because Jason did this, the floodgates are going to open," Welts said in a phone interview the day after Collins made his first appearance with the Nets. "If you had told me in 2011 that this would happen like this today, I wouldn’t have believed it. I’m proud of the Nets for making this happen. They did it for all the right reasons."
Those reasons were about making the Nets stronger defensively - not about generating headlines for a minor personnel transaction, Welts said.
Welts said Jason Kidd, coach of the Nets, "felt like this would be a really good basketball move for his team. He knows Jason, obviously. They played together. So I think the decision was made for all the right reasons, and anyone who’s trying to cast it any other way is probably a little short on their facts."
Collins’s scoring line in his debut might be unimpressive - five fouls, two steals, and two rebounds in less than 11 minutes of play - but he provided needed relief and defense, and the Nets outscored the Lakers by eight points while he was on the court.
Welts admitted having mixed feelings about how best to express his reaction to the signing.
"It’s a really big step toward being regarded totally unremarkable, but it is remarkable now because he is the first" openly gay player, Welts said. "Everybody is going to look back at this as a really big moment."
Welts also said he thought the NBA was probably more ready to sign openly gay players than either Major League Baseball or the National Football League.
"The league has created an atmosphere that makes this possible," he said. "For a very long time, the NBA has had rookie transition training that includes very specific reference to categories in which it will not accept discrimination, including sexual orientation. And this is not like the [NFL prospect] Michael Sam situation: the Nets knew exactly what they are getting. He’s known and respected."
And the NBA made sure teams were prepared, he said.
"The NBA has worked hard in every aspect," Welts said. "The NBA does a better job in creating more diverse opportunities. I think a lot of that is because it emerged a lot later than the NFL and Major League Baseball in popularity. And I think there’s a real leadership factor, too."
Collins’s twin brother Jarron played for the Phoenix Suns when Welts was there, but Welts thinks at most he has met Jason only once with a hand shake before a game. "We’re text buddies," he said with a laugh.
"It’s going to be interesting to see what happens next," Welts said. "It’s too early to tell what will happen. A lot of people will be watching Jason’s experience. I think a lot of people will be looking."
He also took a moment to express support for Robbie Rogers, the gay soccer player who came out at about the same time Collins did last year, then signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy shortly thereafter.
"I feel bad for Robbie Rogers," Welts said. "The rest of the world considers soccer the Number One sport. But that’s not the perception in this country."