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Jews Prove Big Advocates for Gays in Sports

David Stern, Ben Cohen fight for recognition in less-welcome arena

Marc Tracy
May 16, 2011
Ben Cohen on the pitch in 2009.(David Rogers/Getty Images)
Ben Cohen on the pitch in 2009.(David Rogers/Getty Images)

As over the past couple of decades the cultural and even political worlds have rapidly moved toward acceptance of LGBT citizens, the industry and sector of society that has arguably lagged the most behind on this front is professional sports. Quite simply, in major men’s professional sports, there are no openly gay men. (And there are, surely, plenty of closeted ones.) Stories of homophobia are too legion to recollect them all; not a month ago, for example, Kobe Bryant called a referee a “faggot.”

But, as everywhere else, change is coming. The big story over the weekend is that the president of the Phoenix Suns basketball team, Rick Welts, came out. The whole story is insanely worth your time, but if I may cherry-pick from it, longtime NBA Commissioner David Stern—who was also Welts’s longtime boss, and was the subject of a recent Tablet Magazine profile—has been hugely supportive of Welts, not just now, as he has decided to come out, but during particularly dark days, when Welts’s (secret) partner died of AIDS-related illness. “Around 7:30 on the morning after Arnie’s death,” writes the Times’s Dan Barry, “Mr. Welts’s home telephone rang. ‘It was Stern,’ he recalled. ‘And I totally lost it on the phone. You know. Uncle Dave. Comforting.’” Stern and his wife quietly donated $10,000 in Welt’s partner’s memory to the University of Washington. “In thanking Mr. Stern, Mr. Welts said they ‘did the guy thing,’ communicating only through asides and silent stipulations.”

Meanwhile, the Times also profiled Ben Cohen, a just-retired rugby star, as well as a former top college wrestler who are two straight men dedicated to fighting homophobia in sports. “It brings me to bloody tears,” says Cohen, who helped England win a World Cup, of emails documenting hardships suffered by gay athletes. (Cohen is straight—a husband and father, too—but even before his activism had a large gay fanbase, presumably because of his looks. The article also implies, perhaps, that Cohen’s father, who was killed in an attack outside a nightclub he owned, was gay.) UPDATE: Er, Cohen is not Jewish (though is descended from Jews). Um, my bad. David Stern definitely is, though.

“I think there’s a good chance the world will find this unremarkable,” Stern remarked of Welts’s brave act. “I don’t know if I was confusing my thoughts with my hopes.” Here is hoping he wasn’t. Some day, probably not too far off, an active professional male athlete will come out; and some day after that—if it’s not that day—a superstar will. Until then, though, Welts will be the chief hero on this front, secure in the knowledge that folks like Stern and Cohen will have his back.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.