Pro basketball executive Rick Welts shook up the world of professional sports three years ago when he came out as gay. Welts was then president of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns franchise and has since moved on to the Golden State Warriors, where he serves as the team president and chief operating officer.

Talking with me this week for “KQED Newsroom” about newly “out” college football player Michael Sam, Welts said he didn’t understand the discomfort about having gay players in the locker room.

“I don’t know what the concern is,” Welts said. “I was in the NBA when we first started having female reporters in the locker room postgame. That was supposedly going to be a big issue that never materialized. It is no issue. It’s only an issue for those who want to create it.”

And yet.

University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam will surely be the most scrutinized college football player at this weekend’s National Football League Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, where top prospects work out for coaches and general managers.

By announcing he’s gay before the May draft, Sam all but ensured he’ll become the first out gay player in the NFL. The question is where? Which team will draft him, knowing the potential “distraction” it will create, at least initially?

Welts hasn’t yet met Sam, but they have been texting back and forth. Reflecting on what’s happened since his own coming out, Welts said, “It’s “absolutely remarkable what’s transpired.”

“This is kind of an exclamation point on the things that have happened” in sports and in society generally, Welts said. He called Sam’s coming out “a very special moment.”

Reflecting back on last year’s coming out by NBA center Jason Collins, Welts said “we may never know” if Collins sexual orientation ended his pro career. (A free agent at the time, Collins never signed with another team, although the Brooklyn Nets are now said to be interested.)

“I have no doubt there were teams in the NBA who looked at the situation and said,  ‘That might be more than we want to sign up for right now,’ ” Welts said.

I asked Welts about Warriors’ coach Mark Jackson’s comment at the time.

“As a Christian man, I have beliefs of what’s right and what’s wrong,” Jackson said. “That being said, I know Jason Collins, I know his family, and am certainly praying for them at this time.”

Did his coach’s comment disappoint him?

“Yes,” Welts said. “And Mark and I have the kind of relationship where we could talk about that.”

Welts believes Jackson’s comments were taken a bit out of context. Nonetheless, “He probably didn’t say it the way he wished he’d said it,” Welts added.

On the Warriors’ delayed plans to build a new 18,000-seat arena on the San Francisco waterfront, Welts said it’s “full speed ahead” despite strong political headwinds and a possible June ballot measure that would require voter approval for a new arena.

“This is the process we signed up for. There are no shortcuts,” Welts said. “We are completely committed to bringing the Warriors to San Francisco.”

Scott Shafer reported this story for “KQED Newsroom,” which is a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Watch Fridays at 8 p.m. on KQED Public Television 9, listen on Sundays at 6 p.m. on KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM and watch on demand here.


Scott Shafer

Scott Shafer migrated to KQED in 1998 after extended stints in politics and government to host The California  Report. Now he covers those things and more as senior editor for KQED's Politics and Government Desk. When he's not asking questions you'll often find him in a pool playing water polo. Find him on Twitter @scottshafer

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