It’s amazing how the human body can be so affected by typing, speaking or even thinking about certain words.
You can have butterflies, instantly start sweating and be short of breath just thinking about telling someone two words. For me, those two words have always been “I’m gay.”
Growing up in the small town of Coldwater, Michigan, my life revolved around sports. My dad was a head varsity football coach and I was around the game of football since I was in diapers.
I was fortunate to be named the starting quarterback of the Coldwater Cardinal football team my senior year and the starting catcher of the baseball team. There are obvious stereotypes that come with those distinctions, many of them having to do with girls.
At the time, I told myself that I never really pursued girls because I didn’t have the time to properly commit to a relationship. Now, it’s pretty obvious why I never did. Throughout high school, I never had a girlfriend. My parents (especially my mom), friends and even teachers were always trying to set me up with girls they thought were suitable for me. I’m sure it seemed a bit odd to everyone that the quarterback and catcher didn’t really seem to be pursuing relationships with girls.
Most of my friends and teammates had girlfriends and would ask why I didn’t, so this only added to my anxiety and the pressure I felt all the time. I certainly didn’t want to be a liar and lead on a girl who liked me, because I knew it would never work out. I just wanted to fit in and not let anyone down, but that felt impossible with my circumstances.
With that constant battle going on in my head, I was also expected to perform at a championship level on the field. I was a starter on both the football and baseball teams my junior year, but I was expected to have more of a leading role on both teams my senior year.
Heading into senior year, our football program was coming off a record-breaking 12-1 state semifinal season that saw us win our first conference, district and regional championships. That season was by far the best in Coldwater history.
I started on the defensive side of the ball and was the backup QB during that season, so senior season, I was tasked with taking over for the most successful QB in school history. Also, the baseball program had won two conference championships and five district championships in a row. Heading into my final year, a lot of the success of my two teams was dependent on my performance.
In addition to carrying the pressure of performing under heightened scrutiny on the field, I felt like the people I relied on the most — my family, friends, teammates and coaches — didn’t really know who I completely was.
I felt so ashamed of my secret that I did everything in my power to hide it. I would silently shudder every time I heard a teammate throw around words like “faggot” or “cocksucker” at practice or in the locker room. I knew that the slurs were not directed at me, but I could not help the anxiety that came every time I heard someone use one of those words. I was convinced that if someone found out my secret, my life would be ruined.
It’s difficult to put into words how lonely it felt to carry this gigantic secret, knowing it had the potential to exclude me from my passions and everything I loved to do. I spent so much time and mental energy trying to keep my secret that I probably was not as focused on my academics and athletics as I should have been. Looking back, that view of the situation sounds overly dramatic, but at the time, it was my reality.
One thing that I knew would not be an issue was coming out to my family. I’m blessed to have a family that is very loving and accepting, so the stress that so many LGBTQ+ people feel of having their home lives turned upside down when they come out was thankfully not a factor for me. My mom, dad, sister and extended family have shown me nothing but love and support and I will forever be in their debt for that.
Everyone is usually very surprised when I tell them I am gay, because of the “straight” persona I have and the life I lead. I was able to fool just about everyone but my mom. She’s a school counselor, so she is able to read people better than most.
She was happy for me in the sense that I can finally be my full self with nothing held back, and she’s right. I’m a very friendly and outgoing person to begin with, so having this secret for so long really weighed on me. I’m still that same guy who loves to crack jokes and roast people, but now everything about me is out there, which feels really good.
Behind the mic and in stripes
After high school, I knew I didn’t have the talent or desire to continue my playing career, so I enrolled in the School of Journalism at Michigan State University to focus on my education and my future career. I knew from a very young age that after my playing days were done, I wanted to stay involved with sports.
One of the ways I want to do that is through broadcasting. My love of sports broadcasting started from a young age. Some of the windows in our house have a crank that somewhat resembles a microphone, and when I was young, I used to kneel by the cranks pretending I was broadcasting a game to a national audience.
I idolize guys like Mike Tirico, Doc Emrick and Al Michaels, all who make it so easy for anyone with a pulse to enjoy a game. Setting the scene and adding just the right amount of information and drama to the spectacular competition that we as sports fans relish gives me goosebumps.
My job with Big Ten Network Student U at Michigan State has allowed me to realize this passion in an environment that asks a lot of us, but also allows us to not be afraid to make a mistake. I certainly have made my fair share of them through my two years in the program.
Broadcasting is not my only passion in sports. From a young age, I’ve also had a fascination with the referees and their role in athletics. I officiated my first basketball games at the local rec center around the corner from my house when I was 12 for $5 a game, and ever since then, I’ve been hooked. I’m not exactly sure what it is about officiating, but I think it’s the competition aspect of it.
I’m a very competitive person and I’m always trying to be the very best I can in everything I do. Any referee will tell you that they’ve never worked a perfect game and probably never will, but the constant pursuit of excellence is something that drives us to be better every time we step on the floor. The money certainly doesn’t hurt either. These days, I work high school varsity football and basketball, travel league basketball and baseball in the summer, and this past winter, I got my first taste of men’s basketball at the collegiate level.
I spend a lot of time in the summer attending camps and clinics to try to get noticed by supervisors who assign games at even higher levels than what I am working right now and to just learn as much as I can about the craft. I owe so many friendships, connections and wonderful memories to officiating and it is a brotherhood that I hope to be a part of for years to come.
All that being said, being gay in these settings is something that still makes me a bit uneasy and uncertain about the future. Will I be able to get a job in broadcasting if someone who is uncomfortable with the thought of a gay broadcaster is making the hiring decision? Will I still be accepted and supported by my officiating partners, mentors and supervisors? Despite all the progress that has been made, the “locker room environment” is certainly still a very relevant part of today’s culture of sports.
Socially, I didn’t know anything other than that environment and the fact that the gay kids who were out in high school were looked down upon and basically ignored by the rest of the school certainly wasn’t very encouraging.
I’d like to think that my friends and teammates would have accepted me back in high school for who I was and not who I like, but when I heard the aforementioned slurs thrown around like they were nothing, it made me think twice about myself and my place in this sports life that I have chosen.
The anxiety of keeping my secret for so long was crippling at times, but for the most part, I chose to just ignore it in hopes that one day I would wake up and it would not be true. That was no way to cope with it, and I wish I would have just dealt with it head-on much sooner.
The feeling of coming out and being accepted by those you love for who you are, not who you love, is one of the most liberating and strengthening feelings, For my own sanity, I wish I would have come out sooner.
Any doubts about my close friends treating me differently or having a problem with me were quickly erased when I first mustered up the courage to come out to a couple people. My best friend Kam was the first person I came out to and he took it about the best way a person can.
The best thing you can say to someone who has come out is “I love you,” or something about how things are exactly the same as before, and basically everyone close to me did just that.
As far as my career path(s) go, there are very few examples of openly gay broadcasters in the sports world today, so that is basically uncharted territory. Also, there are zero openly gay male professional athletes in the four major U.S. team sports. While we have made so much progress even in the last five years, the culture of sports in America has not yet progressed to the point where someone feels comfortable enough to show themselves in a way that might make them vulnerable to ridicule, hate and exclusion.
I have been inspired and encouraged by the stories of openly gay NBA referee Billy Kennedy and openly gay former MLB umpire Dale Scott, and the acceptance and support that they have received. From everything I have read, they have been treated the same by all of their colleagues in their respective sports, which is very encouraging to me about the culture of the officiating world. It is my sincere hope that if you can do the job while treating people with respect and dignity, you can go as high as you want and that who you love won’t matter.
It was a very long road for me to get to a mindset to be absolutely comfortable with who I am, and I owe so much of my success to those that are close to me. Without the support of my family and the close friends who I confided in first, I’m really not sure where I would be.
I hope this piece can help everyone, but especially those that are similar to me and hiding a secret that no one really suspects. If you lean on those you trust and go at a pace you’re comfortable with, anything is possible.
Learning this truth about me may make some think that I’m a different person and that they didn’t really know me, but the opposite is true. I’m the same person everyone has always known, but now they know my full truth.
I feel more fulfilled now with myself and my life than ever before, and I’m so glad I found the courage to take the first step months ago. It truly was one of the best decisions of my life.
Athlete. Broadcaster. Referee. Whatever path I end up following, I hope the world I live in is a world where the label of “gay man” does not disqualify me from doing anything I want to do in this sports life.
I’m proud of the person I’ve become and the life that I lead and my hope is to inspire others to chase their dreams while being true to themselves.
For the first time in my life, I know I am.
Eric Bach, 20, will graduate from Michigan State University in 2021. He studies journalism with a minor in sports journalism. He works for the Big Ten Network Student U and is one of the student coordinators for intramural referees at MSU. In addition to a full officiating schedule outside of school, he volunteers in the sports department of WDBM The Impact, the student radio station at MSU. He can be reached by email ([email protected]), Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim ([email protected]).