Former Phoenix Suns President and CEO Rick Welts Visits The Athenaeum

140 people, including 113 students, several notable people from Claremont McKenna College's administration, and CMS sports coaches crowded inside the Athenaeum this past Monday, October 24, to see one of the most respected business executives in the National Basketball Association, Rick Welts. Welts was the third of the sixth  speakers of the “Shifting Perceptions” speaker series. The series was put together by the RAs and ASCMC to celebrate the spectrum of leadership across various sectors, including politics, business, journalism, and more.

Greg Zahner '12, an organizer of the series, wrote Welts a letter on May 23, 2011, a few days following Welts' public coming out as a gay man. With the help of the former Stark Hall Resident Assistant Grady Wieger ’10 and the financial support of CMS Athletic Director Michael Sutton, the Associated Students of Claremont McKenna College, Director of the Athenaeum Bonnie Snortum and President Gann, Welts agreed in early June to visit CMC.

Welts began his talk by recalling when he first opened Zahner's letter last May. Though he was offered many opportunities to speak publicly about coming out, Welts said he was glad to accept CMC as one of his first. He was drawn to the fact that CMC was at one point a men's college and continues to place a strong emphasis on team sports.

“In men’s team sports we find sexual orientation an uncomfortable subject,” said Welts. However, he added, “I think we are catching up.”

He explained to the crowd his struggles with coming out right from the start. Welts “set deadlines" to come out but kept pushing back his announcement until he was comfortable admitting he was gay. He eventually told his parents and friends, whom he notes as having been “extremely supportive.”

However, Welts had to decide whether he was going to incorporate, and perhaps complicate, his work life with his personal life. He explained coming out as a “50/50” split between his family and friends. Welts eventually chose to keep his sexual orientation behind closed doors because he did not want his identity as a gay man to limit his success. At the time, Welts did not know what to expect in the masculine sports world, so he kept it a secret.

Finally after stepping down as the Phoenix Suns' President and Chief Executive Officer, Welts opened up about being gay. He said, “I’ve been thinking for a long time to bring this part of my life to work.”

He shared the overwhelming responses to his coming out, which included phone calls, hundreds of letters, and emails he received after his public announcement. Welts recalled, “I heard from everyone I ever worked with in my career, but I also heard from people I didn’t know and people in my industry who just reached out to say thanks.”

The messages from kids and adolescents struggling with their identity are those that Welts remembers most fondly. He admitted that he never had a role model when he was growing up because he “didn’t fit under the stereotypical gay guy.”

The former Suns President and CEO hopes to act as an example for young people who are insecure about their sexual orientation, especially those in sports. He pointed out that, “we have some work to do in men’s team sports.”

Yet, Welts believes the sports world can change and that people will get used to the idea of homosexual professional athletes. Welts ended by comparing his coming out to Magic Johnson revealing his positive HIV diagnosis. In reference to his coming out, Welts concluded,“It was putting a human face on it and taking away the fear."

Shortly after Welts resigned from the Suns, he moved to Northern California to live with his partner and family. He was offered a job shortly after his move and is currently President and Chief Operating Officer of the Golden State Warriors. Welts said that in the four-hour interview for the job, his sexual orientation was brought up only once in the process.

Welts also took time during his visit to help with the CMC organized “It Gets Better Project” and starred in a short, 4-minute video. The “It Gets Better Project”, created by columnist Dan Savage, is designed to offer encouragement and support for LGBT youth. Savage is coming to the Athenaeum on February 29 as part of the "Shifting Perceptions" speaker series. Currently, Zahner and Demetrius Lalanne ’15 are working with other CMC students, faculty, and staff to create the video. Zahner describes the goal of the video as being "for CMC to unite in solidarity against bullying and provide inspiration to gay youth who are feeling hopeless and considering suicide."

Zahner was pleased by the outcome of the Athenaeum dinner. He said, “It is great to have support of the entire CMC community in shifting the perception of our campus culture and in explicitly celebrating inclusivity. Rick was doing it out of the goodness of his heart. He’s an inspirational figure.”

“I thought that it was really inspiring to come out in such a public position,” said Sam Perrella ’15, another student present at the talk.

“We’ve been delighted at the support that’s been shown towards the series,” said, Marks Hall RA Kevin MacPherson ’12, whom Zahner said has been a big help putting together the series. “We are elated by the appearance of so many student athletes at his talk.” Zahner added, noting that athletics are an "extraordinarily important" part of CMC's culture.

Zahner concluded by noting that Welts was an a successful speaker for the college audience. "I think the event was a great demonstration of CMC's unity on this issue."