Last week, Phoenix Suns Pres­i­dent Rick Welts told The New York Times that he is gay, becoming the first man in a promi­nent posi­tion in men’s pro­fes­sional sports to go public with his homo­sex­u­ality. We asked Dan Lebowitz, exec­u­tive director of Sport in Society, a North­eastern Uni­ver­sity research center, to explain the dearth of openly gay male ath­letes in pro­fes­sional sports.

Does Welts’ announce­ment make it easier for ath­letes to come out? Why do men’s sports lag behind the rest of society in accepting homo­sex­u­ality?
Welts’ announce­ment is a mon­u­mental moment in pro­fes­sional sports his­tory because it engages us in a con­ver­sa­tion not only about gay rights, but about how impor­tant it is to be intro­spec­tive, to chal­lenge our narrow con­struct of man­hood and to prac­tice humanity in a manner that reflects what it really means to be humane.

Having said that, Welts’ announce­ment will not open a flood­gate of players coming out. Social change is incre­mental in any venue and pro­fes­sional sports are often con­sid­ered a bas­tion of old-​​school ulti­mate machismo. On the other hand, Hall of Fame bas­ket­ball player Charles Barkley has not only voiced sup­port for Welts, but has declared that he had played with gay team­mates. Ability, not sexual ori­en­ta­tion, he said, should be what defines a man.

How would fans, team­mates and club offi­cials respond to an openly gay home run-​​hitting slugger or a Hall-​​of-​​Fame cal­iber quar­ter­back?
Pro­fes­sional sports are a performance-​​based struc­ture, but a suc­cessful, high-​​profile gay ath­lete would face sim­ilar bur­dens to those con­fronted by players like African-​​American quar­ter­back Doug Williams, who led the Wash­ington Red­skins to a Super Bowl Vic­tory in 1988. I am sure his team’s fans rev­eled in the glory of the win, even if they failed to give him the credit he deserved for han­dling the pres­sure of the game as well as the weight of the racism that per­vaded much of our society.

Suc­cess changes the game, as well as the con­ver­sa­tion about the igno­rance of false per­cep­tion. Nations and notions change when people and leaders forge ahead. Rick Welts has opened the door for those leaders to emerge.

What advice do you have for gay ath­letes who are wor­ried about going public with their homo­sex­u­ality?
It is hard for me to give advice from the safety of my plat­form. I don’t carry the same weight on my shoul­ders or the fear of being ostra­cized. This is an indi­vidual choice, one that takes con­sid­er­able reflec­tion and thought. Leaders will rise to the fore when the time is right for them. Welts showed amazing grace and guts in coming out and starting a dis­cus­sion that cannot be muted. Others will follow. I applaud Charles Barkley, The Phoenix Suns, The San Fran­cisco Giants and a host of others who have already taken the con­ver­sa­tion for­ward. All move­ments need momentum and Rick Welts has pro­vided the nec­es­sary push.