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Rick Welts on NOH8, finding love, leaving the Suns, and opening closet doors in sports

Just 24 hours before his final moments as president of the Phoenix Suns, Rick Welts was looking ahead with memories of the years he was afraid to come out of the closet. Having posed hours before for the NOH8 campaign, his role in ameliorating that fear for others was top-of-mind.

“Having had no one in a position like mine that I could look to who had done this where I could see how it played out was a real obstacle,” Welts said. “Hopefully people who are in my similar position have had an opportunity to see that this can play out really well for them personally, and also to help elevate both the quality and quantity of the conversation about sexual orientation in men’s team sports.”

Welts announced publicly earlier this month that he would leave his position with the Suns to be with his new partner (below). Having previously lost a relationship because he was unable to reconcile his same-sex partner with his career, Welts has been focused on not repeating that history. He’ll move in the coming months to northern California where his partner shares custody of two children with his ex-wife.

“He’s also a very good soccer player,” Welts added.

While it has been reported that Welts will move to Sacramento to be near his partner, he said a relocation to anywhere in Northern California is a possibility, including the San Francisco Bay Area.

Welts and his partner met about 18 months ago. His soon-to-be partner was a flight attendant on a plane as Welts was traveling back home to Phoenix. The two didn’t see each other for six months after they first met, but the chemistry was obviously there.

Despite leaving his high-profile position with the Suns, Welts is anxious to entertain new job opportunities. Top-of-mind for him is maintaining the platform in sports he currently has that allows him to reach an industry long-perceived as homophobic.

“I have a strong feeling that I’m going to be back in the [sports] industry with an opportunity that is equal to the platform that I have as the president of the Suns,” Welts said. “One thing that prevented me from taking this step until this point in my career was the uncertainty of how announcing I was gay would affect my future job prospects.

It certainly hasn’t hurt. Welts said he’s been overwhelmed by job offers flowing into him.

“Through the outpouring that has come my way,” Welts said, “I feel the responsibility to do something with this opportunity. It potentially could be diminished if I decided I was going to become a soccer dad and not pursue a career in sports. But it is my desire, with the right opportunity, to pick up where I left off.”

One of the most powerful tools at his disposal is straight athletes. Welts sees them as key to the push for gay equality in sports. While he couldn’t talk about specific NBA athletes because of the player lockout, Welts said he has received an incredibly positive reaction from everyone he has asked to lend their voice.

“Everybody says, I can’t believe we’re having to have this conversation in 2011 but since we are, I’m happy to lend my voice to your story.”

Between now and his move to northern California, Welts has various speaking engagements lined up. He’ll be at a GLSEN fundraiser in Beverly Hills, Oct. 21; He heads out to Claremont-McKenna for a speech on Oct. 24; And he’ll be featured at the Out & Equal conference in Dallas, Oct. 26. The NOH8 campaign was the latest stop on what could be called his continuing equality tour. Welts was approached months ago to do the campaign, and after careful research he embraced the invitation.

“There’s a simplicity to the images,” Welts said. “That’s the magic. It’s so simple and so hard to imagine not being able to embrace the motivation behind it.”

Through all of his efforts, Welts hopes to continue to talk about an issue long-considered taboo in the world of sports.

“We’re still uncomfortable talking about [gay men in team sports]. I think this has created more constructive dialogue, and I don’t think that’s going to go away.”

Some have wondered if athletes and others in sports stay in the closet because they are worried that their careers might be overshadowed by the fact that they came out. Welts, on the other hand, is embracing his poster-child status.

“It’s what I signed up for. I made the decision by late last year that I was going to do this,” Welts said. “If my story could really resonate with one young person out there who was questioning whether or not they could pursue their passion, sports or not, because of who they are, then it was worth whatever would come from it.”