As a franchise, the Phoenix Suns have not shied away from taking a stand on controversial issues on some of the biggest national stages. In the midst of the Phoenix Suns' sweep of the San Antonio Spurs, the team elected to wear its Latin Nights "Los Suns" jerseys in protest of Arizona's anti-immigration law SB1070.
This year, the Suns again took a stance on one of the most controversial and taboo issues in professional sports: homosexuality.
Just weeks after Kobe Bryant was fined by the NBA for directing an anti-gay slur at a referee, ESPN reported that Rick Welts, president and CEO of the Suns, had announced that he is gay. The same day, a PSA for the GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) featuring Suns players Grant Hill and Jared Dudley ran during the Eastern Conference Finals. Was it coincidence that the two aired on the same day? Maybe. But the timing of the commercial could not have been more opportune for a league — and profession — that needed to hear it most.
Professional athletes have more of an influence on the culture and minds of the nation more than any other public figures. There is a reason "The Decision" of LeBron James was one of the most widely viewed sports events of last summer. People cannot seem to get enough of the inevitable drama that seems to follow some of the world's most popular athletes.
That's not to say that these athletes are to be utterly vilified for making a mistake. There are bound to be mishaps and boneheaded statements when you take a 19-year-old boy and throw him into one of the biggest international spotlights. Yet, with all the resources, funds and personal assistants available to these stars, one would think that a momentary lapse in judgment could be avoided.
Take Kobe Bryant's case as an example. In the heat of a highly contested game between two of the Western Conference's top seeded teams, the Lakers' star picked up a technical foul. Sent to the bench after picking up the tech, Bryant sat down, visibly upset, and threw a towel. This story could have ended there. Unfortunately, it did not. Kobe collected himself and made the seemingly conscious decision to call out to referee Bennie Adams and shout an offensive homophobic slur.
Also unfortunately for Bryant, TNT's cameras were fixated on the star and caught every bit of the phrase on tape. Immediately after reading Bryant's lips, one of the announcers calling the game said, "You might want to take the camera off him, for the children watching."
It was an unfortunate moment for Kobe Bryant, the Lakers and the NBA. Bryant was fined $100,000 for his words. After the incident blew up on social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter, Kobe Bryant offered a swift and sincere apology to the Human Rights Campaign, but the words still remained. This reason, among others, is why the PSA made by the GLSEN, Grant Hill and Jared Dudley is more pertinent than ever.
"We're accountable for the things that we say, and words have meaning," said Grant Hill while on the shoot of the commercial. "We have to be careful with the things that we say and be sensitive to others, so hopefully we can get that across."
For Suns president and CEO Rick Welts, the importance of an ad that creates awareness on the issue of homosexuality is of paramount importance. According to a report by ESPN, Welts met separately with NBA Commissioner David Stern, Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash, Hall of Famer Bill Russell and WNBA president Val Ackerman to determine how he wanted to make his sexual preference known.
Welts has been respected in the basketball world for some time. In 1984, he was credited as one of the creators of the modern day NBA All-Star Weekend, adding the Slam Dunk Contest and Old Timers' Game to the All-Star Game, making the weekend an entire event. In 1997, he helped create the WNBA. Widely regarded as one of the more brilliant marketing minds in the entire league, Welts has definitely left his mark on the league.
Now, by revealing his sexual orientation, he hopes to leave an even bigger mark by reaching out to the gay community that may be intimidated by the thoughts of a career in the sports world.
"When it comes to homophobia in the sports world, it's come a long way, and I think that people realizing that you need to respect one another," said Suns forward Jared Dudley. "You have to respect peoples' values and what they are because we're not here to judge ... and it starts with the NBA. A lot of these people look up to the stars, these role models, and kids want to be you, and if they see how you're acting toward this, it'll definitely sway a lot of people."
Phoenix Suns head coach Alvin Gentry also offered words of encouragement to Welts in a recent interview with ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard. When asked if he knew Welts was gay, Gentry said, "I had a feeling about it. 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."
While the NBA playoffs may rage on without the presence of the Phoenix Suns, the effect of the team is still being felt league-wide. It takes courage for a franchise and its players to make such bold stances on controversial issues. With the reception of these actions being held in high esteem, the Phoenix Suns may just be setting the example to how a successful sports franchise can integrate itself into issues other franchises are afraid to touch.