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RICK WELTS, one of the most respected business executives in the NBA, is entering his seventh season as president and chief operating officer of the Golden State Warriors. Under his direction, the Warriors have won numerous awards across all facets of the business in recent years, including the prestigious Sports Business Journal/Daily “Sports Team of the Year” award in 2014 and again in 2016. Welts has over 40 years of experience in the league, including stints as president of the Phoenix Suns and public relations director of the Seattle Super Sonics, where his NBA career began as a ballboy in 1969 at the age of 16. Welts spent 17 years with the NBA league office in New York, where his notable accomplishments included the creation of NBA All-Star Weekend in 1984 and the marketing program for USA Basketball’s Olympic “Dream Team” in 1992, and was named “Marketer of the Year” by Brandweek in 1998 for his role in launching the WNBA.
In this episode of The Will To Change, you’ll discover:
– Why Rick made the decision to come out publicly as a high ranking NBA executive (3:50)
– The controversial state law in North Carolina that led the NBA’s decision to relocate the 2017 All-Star game (9:40)
– A surprising reason why active professional sports players are reluctant to come out as gay (18:35)
– Lessons from the NBA’s diversity efforts for other organizations (29:40)
– Rick’s diversity and inclusion vision for the Golden State Warriors (32:13)
– Rick’s thoughts about the current state of the WNBA (38:30)
– A mindset shift for how to build on forward progress in diversity and inclusion (42:25)
Rick discusses the feedback that he received after coming out, as well as the work that he has done championing the NBA’s diversity and inclusions efforts. Rick also shares his unique perspective on diversity and inclusion in professional sports as the only “out” president in the NBA.
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
Jennifer Brown: Thank you for joining me on The Will to Change, this is Jennifer Brown. My guest today is Rick Welts. Rick is one of the most respected business executives in the NBA, and he’s entering his seventh season as President and Chief Operating Officer of the Golden State Warriors. Welts has over forty years of experience in the league including stints as President of the Phoenix Suns, and Public Relations Director of the Seattle Supersonics, where his NBA career began as a ball boy in 1969 at the age of 16. He is also the co-founder of the WNBA. Rick, welcome to The Will to Change.
Rick Welts: Thank you, Jennifer.
Jennifer Brown: I’m glad you’re here. When I first met you, I think it was I was speaking for the NBA on diversity and inclusion, and telling my own diversity story as part of my keynote, which I typically do, and revealing some things that were surprising to the audience. I always can actually use that element of surprise to my advantage. And I know you know what I’m talking about because you came out publicly in 2011 after many years in the NBA. So I wanted you to take us through how did you reach a tipping point for that decision, and share with us the concerns or fears I know you had. Why did you feel that the time was right, and that it was something you really needed to do? How did you come to make that decision?
Rick Welts: We’re starting with a big question.
Jennifer Brown: Yes, why not?
Rick Welts: I have been involved with the NBA since I was 16 years old actually as a ball kid for the Seattle Supersonics, so this has been a lifelong passion of mine, the NBA. And at the time you’re referring to in 2011, I was President of the Phoenix Suns, and I worked for both teams and in the league office and now I was back as President of the team.
There were a lot of things going on personally in my own life. My mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and the prognosis was probably not great so I didn’t really know how much longer I was going to have her in my life. I had just come out of a fourteen year relationship with a partner, I think in large measure because I was not able to include him, the most important person in my life, in a lot of my work endeavors, and I was at a point where I wanted to take a step back and reassess where I was, and whether or not I was at a point in my life where I wanted to bring my personal life into my workplace.I was at a point in my life where I wanted to bring my personal life in. Click To Tweet
I went to my mother first actually, and said, “First of all here’s what I’m thinking about. If it would cause you any stress or concern or embarrassment or any of that, of course I can deal with it a certain way.” And she encouraged me, if that was something I wanted to do, to do it however I wanted to.
My next stop was to New York City. I had a reason to be there and sought out probably the smartest person I know in the media business – a guy by the name of Dan Cloris who’d run a major New York PR firm for a number of years, has his own agency now, and asked him to go to dinner. And I just said, “Here’s my story, I’m too close to it really to know the best way to go about it. I need you to tell me if this is something I can take care of privately in my own way, or is there something more that could be gained if I did it in a much more public way?” And in a moment he just responded, “Number one, if you’re willing to do this, I’d love to help you. But second, if you think you’re ready to tell your story publicly, I think it’s page A1 of the New York Times,” which was kind of my holy cow moment, and that really started the ball in motion and resulted in what turned out to be a front page story in the New York Times in May of 2011.
Jennifer Brown: Oh my gosh, it’s just a nail biter. I can imagine the level of stress, especially the last couple of days before it was published. I love that you asked the question, ‘Is there more good that can be accomplished if I do this in a public way?’
It really caught my attention and imagination because you’re in a safe zone, if you will, career-wise, and I know you and I talked about what do younger people in their careers have to lose in making this kind of decision. I love that you had the freedom to do that, and you had a fair degree of confidence that you would be supported. Leap and the net will appear – and by all accounts, it did. Were you pleasantly surprised by the reaction?
Rick Welts: Actually astounded. I think you prepare yourself for the good and the bad that can happen, and I think in my mind I knew I would get great support from people I had worked with. Friends and family my whole life had been supportive and knew my story, but there’s uncertainty and some anxiety about how somebody who’s at the other end of a computer terminal, seeking out your email address, how they might respond.
I keep on a shelf four binders of email responses to the article. I printed out every one and I’ve kept it, and I occasionally look back at them, because – I know it doesn’t sound true, and I hate to even say it – not one of those people who took the time to seek me out and share a message with me was anything but encouraging and positive.
The responses that I hold closest to me were from families, from parents who concerned about their kids who were wondering if they could find a place in life and be happy, from kids themselves whose parents had no idea how they were feeling, and then from other people in our industry who, at their point in their journey, are not ready to take that step but wanted to reach out to try to connect with someone in our sports industry on the executive side who would understand what they’re going through every day, and what they’re debating internally about.
Jennifer Brown: That’s so important to be able to have those binders, and read them, and remember how important this work is now more than ever.
I’m curious: When you look back, do you think your timing was perfect for the receptivity that you encountered? If you had timed it five years before that, for example, do you think that our society and the sports world was ready for it?
Rick Welts: I never counsel anybody on timing because it’s such a personal decision. I knew when it was the right time and I really wasn’t looking at any external factors in terms of what was going on in my life. I think the miracle of timing for me is, if you can get your head back to 2011, I could never have predicted – nor could any of us – the societal change that we would undergo in the ensuing few years. To imagine legalized gay marriage in 2011 seemed like something so far in the distance that you didn’t know if it would be in your lifetime. To look back now at the amount of change in society that has taken place, I think from that standpoint it was wonderful timing but it was circumstantial that it happened to happen for me then.
Jennifer Brown: That’s very generous of you to say, but it was a really courageous move. That leads us to one of the most well-known stories about the NBA’s decision to relocate the All Star game from Charlotte due to the HB2 bill which is infamously known as the “bathroom bills debates” that are going on in that state. There was a day when you got up in front of your colleagues and really spoke from the heart as you all were making this decision. Can you describe that and what happened after that?
Rick Welts: Well, I have an incredible counterpart at the Charlotte Hornets franchise – a guy by the name of Fred Whitfield who’s the President of the Hornets African American – who had been intimately involved in trying to work with the leadership of both the city of Charlotte and the state of North Carolina, and trying to find some resolution to the mess, frankly, that the state of North Carolina had put the NBA and a lot of other entities in. Fred’s a close friend, we had a lot of conversations about it, and Adam Silver was on it from the day that the bill was passed. Everyone’s hope – and my hope – was that there would be some kind of compromise out there that would allow us to go forward with plans to host the All Star game. The All Star game is different than having a team with an ongoing business there. We love the Charlotte Hornets, they’re one of our thirty teams, they have an ongoing business, but the league has an opportunity to decide where the All Star Game goes every year, and it has tens or maybe even $100 million impact economically on a market.
The view from the top, from Adam, was we need to be someplace that we think we can have a successfully staged weekend consistent with the values of the NBA, and the HB2 law that the state passed was not consistent with that. There was an amazing amount of behind-the-scenes work by Adam, by the Hornets franchise, by Fred Whitfield to try to find a way forward that would allow us to have a game. But last July, we had our owner’s meeting in Las Vegas, and Adam and I talked a lot leading up to that, and he asked me before the meeting would I have the last word on this, and just speak personally? Not necessarily for the Warriors but speak from my personal experience, and he gave me a wonderful platform to talk to the owners about why it was important that we made the decision that we eventually made, and what it would mean, who was watching – in terms of their own employees in their own organizations, many of whom I’m in contact with who have not felt comfortable coming out in their organizations – and what they decided to do was send a message about who they were, and about the values that they have personally, as well as the values of the NBA.
After I finished my comments at the end of the meeting, I had an amazing outpouring of support from individual owners. I got my first bear hug from Michael Jordan who owns the Charlotte Hornets franchise, and I think the Charlotte team people were so understanding that this had nothing to do with them, they’ve worked as hard as they could, but they supported the decision and we got through staging a wonderfully successful All Star event in New Orleans who pulled it off amazingly well with such a short preparation time. But we’re holding 2019 out there hoping that there’s some change in the law in North Carolina that allows us to come back to Charlotte in 2019 which I think would be a very joyous event if that comes to pass.
Jennifer Brown: I can imagine. That must have been a tipping point not just for the NBA, but for other sports organizations like the NFL, too. Have you seen an increase in the amount of dialogue about social issues, and stands being taken?
Rick Welts: Sports has always stood at the intersection of social issues and our society. It plays a unique role in that it’s an area of conversation and interest in sports where people who have completely different backgrounds, or have nothing else in common, share an interest in their team, or the league, and it’s a place where those collisions take place. Whether they’re discussions about race, or about gender or politics, I think it inevitably happens that the discussion has overtones – sometimes sports leads the way in breaking down barriers, and I think that’s its function in society.
We’re seeing a greater tendency for players to stake out more political views now and listen, there’s a counter argument to this. There are a great number of people who support our industry who say, “You know what? Wait a minute, this is the one place I have left in my life where politics doesn’t intrude on my enjoyment of what I see as entertainment.” But it’s just not the way the world works.
Our sports leagues are populated with really smart people as players who have opinions about things outside how to run a basketball play. And to pigeonhole them and not use the platform that they’ve been given to share their thoughts about things that are going on in our society seems different than we would treat anybody else in a job in our world.Our sports leagues are populated with really smart people as players who have opinions Click To Tweet
So I think there is some caution when a player takes those steps because their career is, by definition, much shorter than yours or mine, they’re playing for a few years, they have a short time in which to earn a lifetime of economic security, and by definition they’re young people, most of them in their twenties. So it’s not without some risk, but I think that when they have strong feelings about something and feel confident to share a well-researched opinion, then I think we should all be applauding the fact that they do that.
Jennifer Brown: We talk a lot about that in my workplace consulting about the concept of bringing your full self to work. I think it’s a phrase born out of the LGBT community because so many of us leave huge swabs of who we are at the door when we come into work on a Monday morning – changing pronouns, making up stories, or avoiding having pictures on our desks. So I totally resonate with what you’re saying around why would we ask these promising, bright, passionate young people to compartmentalize themselves. I can very much relate to that, and I don’t think they would play in the best way that we want them to play if they’re not comfortable, right? If they’re not seen and heard, and feel like full and whole individuals.
Rick Welts: Absolutely that’s the case. I think that where we’ve led in many ways in sports, as an industry we’re still playing catch-up to where society is – both from a competitive standpoint in the locker room, as well as in our business organizations. So I’ve said it before, but I think what I was trying to do, what I wanted to be, was that person that I never had because I could never look within my industry and see somebody in a senior position who had taken the step of acknowledging their sexuality, and seeing how it played out. There was this great uncertainty and great unknown about how it would be received. If I could do it and do it in a way that people could relate to, and see that it could have a great outcome or not – it turned out to have a great outcome – it’d be instructive to other people about their own situation hopefully, and give them the courage to make whatever decisions they think need to be made.
Jennifer Brown: As we say, you’ve got to see it to be it, and we say that a lot for younger women for example looking up the org chart and not seeing senior executives who are women. It has a detrimental effect on what we think is possible for ourselves. And frankly, in the corporate world, whether we stay in the role or not in a company.
You and I talked a little bit about why don’t we see more out players. There’s so few players who are out at a high level. You explained to me that it’s actually not for fear of their teammates’ responses, or even their fans, you gave me another reason…
Rick Welts: It’s been a really interesting discussion to have with a lot of people – former players, or even current players – because there’s a dynamic in the chemistry of any sports team that is easily disrupted. More than anything else, I don’t think among players today there is a fear of having a gay teammate, or being gay and telling your teammates, or that somehow there’d be this terrible repercussion from the public. I think the reality is because so few players have taken that step, that the amount of attention that that would draw to them as an individual, and collaterally to their team, I think people worry about how that could upset the mission, the team, and being in it together, working hard and not being distracted by outside elements that could really disrupt the delicate chemistry of a team.
I think a player thinks long and hard about, ‘Wow all the attention that I’m going to get for this, is that potentially going to be disruptive to what we’re really trying to accomplish here and what I’m supposed to be doing in my job?’ So I think there’s an extra layer to this that you wouldn’t have in the business office because you happen to be part of this amazingly gifted set of athletes that are trying to pull together as a team.
Jennifer Brown: How has it gone for the players that have chosen to come out, and what timing did they choose that lessened the impact on their team members, and that esprit de corps that’s so important in athletics? What are you seeing amongst those that have come out?
Rick Welts: Well the only active player in the NBA who’s come out, Jason Collins, did it at the very tail end of his career, and I think he’s a perfect person to take that role. It was incredibly well-respected by his teammates and his player peers. He’s Stanford-educated, and an articulate spokesperson. But in other sports, like a Robbie Rogers who came out in the very prime of his career in major league soccer with the LA Galaxy, he’s won a championship since, he’s become a father, he’s had a very public life that I think he wouldn’t trade for anything. So again it’s such an individual decision. A lot of players have come out after, in their retirement, because obviously there are no longer those considerations about the workplace at that point, and that’s certainly an easier time to do it.
But look today and you see what’s happening at the collegiate and high school level, and you see more and more athletes choosing to come out. You and I probably couldn’t have even imagined it in high school, but today it’s not that unusual for an athlete in high school to come out – more so in college as well. That just didn’t happen before, and at some point I’m hoping that it becomes not such a big deal so we see a lot more of that – at the professional level as well. I mean, I joke all the time that if my story was being told today, I’m not even sure it would make the New York Times, but to me that’s the greatest measure of progress of what’s happened in our society since 2011. So we’ll stay tuned.
I’ve had corporate sponsors out there tell me that they would love to show a display of support for an athlete who was willing to take that step, but it’s a big one, and I think we should all understand that.
Jennifer Brown: In the workplace, recent studies say that nearly 50% of employees are still closeted in the workplace. So that’s a really sobering reminder that so many people are still struggling with this. But I wanted to ask you, you shared a story on the role of allies as we were getting ready for the call, I wondered if you would share it again, and the difference that people standing up and making it safe for this conversation to occur by sharing their own diversity story – because everybody has one, right?
It’s not just a conversation about race, or gender, or even sexual orientation. We’re all a mix of things that other people may or may not be able to perceive about us. Also – your friend just wrote a piece from the Miami Heat, I wondered if you would share that and tell our listeners where to find it, and what was so, so encouraging and important about it.
Rick Welts: It came at a perfect time in our league’s history. Eric Woolworth is the President of the Miami Heat and has been in that job for seventeen years. He’s one of my closest friends in the business. I sent him an email this morning when I read the essay that he published and said, ‘This changes absolutely nothing in terms of my opinion about you, because I’ve known this about you my whole life,’ and I was proud of him for sharing that with the world, so the world could know one, what an extraordinary leader he is, but secondly, what a great organization he’s built with the Miami Heat.
The essay that Eric Woolworth wrote is about what they aspire to be as an organization at the Miami Heat, and how important diversity and inclusion is in that mission, and it is incredibly eloquent. He’s a white guy from New York who is straight, and wouldn’t seem to be a typical spokesperson here for diversity and inclusion, but I think he shared in that essay how he grew up, and he fell in love with and married a woman, his Jewish bride. They have two beautiful children who were raised Jewish. His little brother is married to an African American woman, and they have two kids. His brother-in-law is gay and lives in New York City with his partner. So while you would see Eric from Central Casting like a white prep school kid from New York City, it turns out his personal story has been nothing but full of diversity and inclusion, and so his approach to life is to share his life experience with others.
To your point, I don’t necessarily judge the package. You may want to learn a bit more about the person who is inside that package before you start jumping to conclusions about how they might feel about anything in particular. It really brought home a pride he and I share in the NBA’s efforts, having for the first time in our history a senior executive in charge of diversity and inclusion, and making this an ongoing topic in all the meetings when our teams get together, and in the right way.
From the NBA’s point of view, this is not a check-the-box approach. Yeah, we’re going to do surveys, and we’re going to tell you what your organizations look like in a calculated way, an unbiased way, but at the same time I think drive home the point about what I believe in our organization, or what Eric believes in his organization, and what I know Adam Silver believes in his organization that the inclusion of people with different backgrounds around the table creates better decision making. You’re bringing people from different life experiences who better represent your customers, who bring a unique viewpoint to something that people who look alike, and talk alike, and spend all their time alike don’t necessarily have. That enriches any organization. If you encourage that, and if you make that part of the DNA of your organization, I believe to my core that the chances of having a really successful enterprise is enhanced. You’ve got to believe that, at the end of the day, to really make a difference, our league has to put a stake in the ground on this being a key goal for our organization in the NBA.The inclusion of people with different backgrounds creates better decision making. Click To Tweet
Jennifer Brown: You shared that being newer as an organization helped. You could tackle diversity and move quicker and faster and make progress, and you shared that – and I see this in my consulting work with the longer standing organizations that are more structured – ‘this is the way we’ve always done it.’ It’s often harder to back into the diversity argument when everything is in place or there are preconceived notions about why we’re doing something.
The way you were talking to me about it, is that diversity is viewed as an additive. It’s something that’s going to make us more resonant with our talent, it’s going to help us to lead better and come up with more innovative products and output.
You’ve had great leadership, which you need as well – people who are walking the talk – and you had a lot of great gender diversity early in your story because you grew fast. But I’m sure that wasn’t accidental. So if anyone’s listening to this and asking, “What are the key pieces to building diversity into our DNA at any point in the journey?” Are there three things that you consider most important in order to be successful?
Rick Welts: You know we talk about that a lot. I don’t think the NFL went the route of trying to encourage more diversity in their coaching ranks, to implement this thing called the Rooney Rule where you had to interview a minority candidate as part of filling any major coaching positions. We haven’t taken that approach. We’re just asking people that we look for – and being very honest with ourselves when we have a job to fill that we are reaching out to a diverse candidate pool, and challenging each one of us to hold ourselves accountable to that when we’re filling positions.
The NBA is no different than any other sports league. Somebody I know already might be an easy choice, but that person is more likely somebody who’s much more like me than somebody I might find if I truly go through the process of trying to find the best candidate. So we’re implementing some tools in the NBA in terms of agencies that specialize in finding more diversity in candidates, and trying to include that in our talent pool as we seek to fill jobs.
Look, we’re going to be honest. We’re collecting stats, and we’re going to do it every year, and we’re going to see “Are we headed in the right direction or are we not headed in the right direction?” We do a lot of things where we publicly rank teams, this would never be one of those where we would do that publicly, but within our own industry I think we want to have some really honest discussions about, “Are we doing everything possible to make sure the most talented people are getting the jobs that we have to offer?”
Jennifer Brown: When you think about who is under-represented in your organization at any level, how do you think about it? Is it a gender issue? Is it a race and ethnicity issue? Is it diversity of thought in terms of background or experience? Diversity can be defined in so many different ways. Or is it more general than that?
Rick Welts: I have to admit our organization is typical of an NBA team. We probably have about 200 employees, so I think it’s most important that your leadership has that mindset. We don’t have a lot of check-the-box procedures in place. I can tell you the only place I disagree with my friend Eric Woolworth is that I think Golden State Warriors has the most diverse senior management team in sports. And it starts with me, right? It starts with my attitude and what I convey to our senior managers who are at the next level of hiring, and what the expectations are in terms of how we’re going to grow as an organization.
We are such a public organization. So many of the people in our organization have public profiles. We have the most visible fifteen athletes in the Bay Area who represent the Bay Area every day when they play basketball. And it’s important to me, frankly, that when they come into our office, they can look around and say, “Okay I feel like this is an organization that’s reflective of our community, and I can be proud to be a part of it.” I think that’s a big part of it in our industry.
Jennifer Brown: It’s critical.
Rick Welts: Ours has happened organically. One thing I’m really focused on – maybe you can help our organization on this – is I’m a block away right now, as we speak, from a twelve acre hole in the ground that will become the new home of the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco. We’re moving from Oakland to San Francisco, and going from being just a basketball team that rents our building to an entertainment and sports company with 200 employees to probably 500 full-time employees and 3,000 or 4,000 part-time employees.
What I’m really focused on right now is, when you go through that incredible growth over a short period of time, how do I institutionalize and make sure that the organization that we have when we come out on the other end of that growth is as inclusive and diverse as the organization we have today?
That’s my biggest challenge right now.
Jennifer Brown: I’d love to help you with that, absolutely. And you’re right to identify that as a potential pitfall. Actually, your diversity could go the other way, and we’ve seen that happen. I’m not sure if you’re following the blog that was published by the female engineer at Uber a week ago that’s gone viral and has generated so much conversation. But she started as one of, I don’t know, thirty or forty women in an organization of 150, and when she left she was one of six.
Rick Welts: Wow.
Jennifer Brown: Yeah, and not only had nobody noticed, but her pleas for help in terms of how hostile the work environment was for her went completely unheeded. It’s been a really sobering story for a lot of people – not surprising for any woman you ask – but very surprising for a lot of people to hear that nothing was done about it, et cetera. So I think you have to be careful with growth.
Rick Welts: Yeah I think that no organization has grown faster than Uber. By the way, maybe we can get a two-for-one deal here because Uber is building their new corporate headquarters literally across the street from that new arena that I’m talking about. So maybe you could come talk to us both.
Jennifer Brown: I love it. Awareness is half the battle and the fact that you, as the senior leader, are making this top of mind, you’re going to talk about it a lot, I’m sure, knowing your leadership style – I can’t imagine anything more important for you – so I’m sure that’s going to have a big impact, but then it’s going to come down to your processes and structures, and like you said, ‘How do I institutionalize it?’ And that’s a great question.
I wanted to ask you about gender diversity specific to the WNBA and your role in seeing all of that through, and what’s different for female players? What surprised you the most as you deepened your knowledge about that dynamic, and what did you learn from it as a leader, as a man, as an ally for these women? What did you learn about maybe race and ethnicity dynamics?
Rick Welts: That’s an all-encompassing question. When I was the Chief Marking Officer of the league, we launched the WNBA which is twenty years ago now. It’s been a fascinating ride and a fascinating experience. I think the league is doing fine right now, it’s not maybe where I hoped it would be in twenty years, and I think the first thing that we learned was the athletes themselves were so incredibly grateful and passionate to have a place to play in the United States in a professionally run sports league, because up until that time, the only place to really earn a living if you were a great female basketball player was internationally in Russia, in Asia, and in Europe, and now there was a place to play at home.
But still today, the economics are incredibly different, right? The money that you can make being one of the top professional basketball players in the WNBA still pales in comparison to some other parts of the world, and certainly in comparison with their male counterparts in the NBA. It’s a big gap to try to figure out how the economics of the two enterprises are at some level going to intersect. But the commitment to trying to make that successful was the thing that was amazing to me. Unlike our male athletes in the NBA who grew up a very different way, these were women who pretty much had to fight their way through at every level to achieve the success they had and get the recognition that they deserve for the athletic talent that they possess. Somehow because of that, their personalities were much more developed as young people because they really did have more life experience and had faced more diversity than the vast majority of our male athletes. There was a resolve and a commitment there, and more of a willingness to work together, not just as players but together with the league to do everything possible to ensure success. Very impressive, and quite different than a lot of experiences I’ve had before in sports.
I think our challenge has been to try to get the general public to really understand what a spectacular level of basketball is being played in the WNBA today. Some of that’s our fault, we started with too many teams, and frankly I think the talent pool wasn’t great enough in the beginning to have the quality of play be anywhere close to what it is today. But the women who are coming into the WNBA today have never known in their lives a time when the WNBA didn’t exist. Think about that, right? So they’ve had those role models, they’ve had that league to look up to, they’ve seen women’s sports take on a level of importance that it didn’t have twenty years ago.
But it still feels to me like there’s so much more to do to try to have this league be viewed as anything close to as successful as the NBA, the NFL, or major league baseball.
Jennifer Brown: We talk about the double and triple bind for women – women of color, queer women of color – and in the business world there’s layers of our more risky identities, or parts of our identity. I don’t know if you’re familiar with any of their coming out stories, and how they were differently received, or differently processed by the public. Are there any stories that you can share on that front – either depressing or encouraging?
Rick Welts: I’m completely generalizing here, but for the white, male sports fan, it seems that there’s something much less threatening about a gay female athlete than there is a gay male athlete. I don’t quite understand that, but I know it’s true. I know it’s true from hundreds of conversations I’ve had. Why is that? I’m not smart enough to know the answer to that question, but again some of the more interesting discussions we had in the early years of the leagues when the teams would get together – we had a very large lesbian following of the WNBA historically, and still today, but it also had great appeal to families with young kids, and there was this really honest discussion of behavior in the stands, like ‘Oh my God, what happens when two women are kissing on the Kiss Cam?’ And funny questions that sound ridiculous today, but twenty years ago were like, ‘Are we going to alienate segments of our fan base who are comfortable with that?’ And you know it came down to a really simple formula.
Behavior is either okay or not okay, and whether it’s between a man and a woman or two men or two women, that can’t really be the test. The test is, is the behavior appropriate? And if the behavior is appropriate, the behavior is appropriate. We have to embrace it. We want to be a place where everybody is comfortable. And if we’re going to be true to that, the answer reveals itself. Thinking back twenty years to when we were launching this, we just wanted to do the right thing, but what’s the right thing? I think it becomes very obvious at the time.
Jennifer Brown: I want to close by talking about progress. Is forward progress always something that we can count on, for those of us who believe in equality? I know you had the great privilege of being at Obama’s Pride Celebration, and the speech he gave, and he had a very sobering message. As much as he was proud of the progress that’s been made for equality and diversity and inclusion, he also made the point that it is reversible, and it turned out to be poignant timing.
I wanted to ask you to take us back to that moment. What do you think has happened, and how can we be continue to invest in this, and be brave and bold? How can we support each other? Not just within our communities, but outside of our communities as well?
Rick Welts: The event you’re referring to was last spring, and it was the White House Celebration of Pride Month. My partner Todd and I were honored to get invited, and fortunately it fell right in between a couple of playoff games in Cleveland so we were able to go. It was an amazing atmosphere that welcomed the President in for his speech, and I think he described it very well. I think it was a moment to give thanks, and really reflect on the remarkable progress that had been made during the time that he had been in office. But he did exactly what you said. He said, “This is not an inevitable march. This could go the other way. And if there’s a moment where you feel like the battle is over, that’s the first sign that we’re going to start to have problems.” And it’s prophetic in so many ways because it was a mid-week event right before the Pulse Nightclub massacre took place, which was no more startling reminder of the ability we have as a community to deal with real adversity than that.
In the political environment that we’re operating in with the current President, there’s a lot of people afraid out there. But in some ways I think we’re more on guard today than maybe we were at that time when Obama was making that speech, because I think there was a sense that the hard stuff had been done. That there was kind of an inevitability to this, and I think now his words were incredibly prophetic in that no, this isn’t necessarily a straight line forward, there’s going to be some setbacks, and we have to not forget how we got here, and the people who made today’s social atmosphere possible, and what they sacrificed, and what they did to make that possible. If we’re less committed to that, we’re liable not to get the best outcome.
Jennifer Brown: If you believe that the old ways won’t work anymore, what do we need more of, or what do we need to rethink in today’s world?
Rick Welts: No listen, I mean what happened to civil conversation? And what happened to unbiased news networks? So it’s clear that any of us who think we’re going to be able to use those old tools to move the world forward are going to get lost in the process because our kids are consuming information in very different ways than we did growing up, and if we’re not in tune with that, and understand that however good the network nightly news might be, it’s becoming less and less relevant to people who are going to be guiding the future of our country.
The way the President got elected was not because the major networks decided that he was the best candidate, that’s for sure. But there was the ability to talk to people in ways that traditionally have not been the ways that you influenced opinions, and a way to give people forums that they’ve never had before that become very powerful and influential. So I kind of wish I was twenty years old again because I think I would be more of the moment in terms of understanding more than I think I do about the way public opinion is going to be shaped going forward, and the way that we’re going to influence the way our society turns, and it’s exciting but it’s also frightening and a cautionary tale all at the same time.
Jennifer Brown: Yes it is, and it makes you feel downright old. I mean I’m in my forties and I know I remember the days before the Internet. There was just a single gay bookstore in town, but no way to find community. I know you remember those days, and then fast forward to a generation thankfully for whom diversity is a given. It’s baked into who they are, and they want to bring their full selves to work whether the workplace is ready for that or not, and whether the older generation is ready for that or not. We’re seeing that and I know it’s exciting, but also makes us ask, ‘How do I even talk about it anymore because the conversation has moved lightning speed ahead?’
But I do believe we can support them from behind, and at the same time we still see many, many senior leaders of the Baby Boomer generation, Gen-X, who haven’t really addressed the fear that workforces are feeling right now, and their employees are maybe opting for silence. In fact, I’d say maybe 95% of them have opted for that, and I think that’s such a missed opportunity.
Voices like yours, at the time that you did what you did, I think still have to be acknowledged as tremendously brave acts, and I think we need a lot more allies telling their stories like your friend Eric at the Miami Heat, and more people that don’t have an expected diversity story to say, “This is what this means to me, and it’s why I believe in it for our fans, for our organization, for our business bottom line, for our health and wellness.” Those leaders are going to be the ones that lead the way.
Rick Welts: Maybe as we wrap up here, I’ll tell the one story about why I still have so much hope. That day that I was making my media rounds in New York City, when that New York Times story had come out, I remember my favorite moment of that day was just as I finished an interview on CNN and my niece called me, at the time she was twelve years old, and she was like, “Uncle Rick, Uncle Rick!” “Yeah?” “I was the coolest kid in school today when people found out that you were that guy, that you were my uncle.”
I’m thinking back to when I was twelve years old and I’m not sure that would have been exactly the same reaction. To me it was so hopeful, it was a really nice reminder.
Jennifer Brown: It was beautiful, may the world be like that through her eyes.
Thank you so much, Rick. I so appreciate this and it’s been really moving, instructive, enlightening and encouraging, so I really, really thank you for sharing your story on The Will to Change today.
Rick Welts: It’s my pleasure, thank you.
The Miami Heat: A Celebration of Diversity in American Sports
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