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Chris Burns: the D1 college coach who made LGBT sports history by coming out

Four years ago this month, Chris Burns became the first coach in NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball to come out as gay in an exclusive essay on Outsports.

Chris Burns has struggled for years to reconcile his sexual orientation with his love of basketball.
Chris Burns struggled for years to reconcile his sexual orientation with his love of basketball.
Bryant Athletics

All month long, Outsports is revisiting key moments in gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer sports history as part of LGBTQ history month. Today we look back at the first men’s college basketball coach to come out in NCAA division 1.

It was four years ago this month that Chris Burns — then an assistant coach for men’s basketball at Bryant University — came out as gay in an exclusive essay for Outsports.

Burns had held the secret that he’s gay from everyone in college basketball, until finally sharing his thoughts about his relationships, fear, community and finding his truth. His essay is below, followed by an update on what’s happened since.

Sports was always a place I couldn’t be me. Basketball gave me a very secure identity at a young age, which was crucial, but as I grew older, it became a juxtaposition between the accolades of my on-court success and the fear created by being gay.

The more I achieved and excelled at my sport, the further I felt from myself. It made it extremely hard to fully enjoy the successes I achieved.

In high school, there were always the locker room and hallway homophobic words that everyone is accustomed to. I kept my head down and focused on my identity as a good hoops player to keep attention away from my secret identity as a gay kid growing up in rural New Hampshire. I did as much as I could to surround myself with girls and other athletes so that no one would get suspicious.

But I was also still figuring things out. I felt attracted to women at times, but that slowly waned as my attraction to other men grew.

I had a great reputation as a player in New Hampshire high school basketball, and I was doing enough on the social side to stay hidden. People in high school didn’t suspect a thing, and nothing negative about my sexuality really ever arose until after my high school days were over.

Chris Burns Anthony Nicodemo
Chris Burns, left, with Anthony Nicodemo

In college I had a boyfriend, Anthony Nicodemo. He was always coming to games and coming to visit me, so suspicions were certainly there. But again I hid that with small relationships with women on campus, so the guys on the team would see me socializing and not really suspect anything. People at Bryant did a good enough job respecting my privacy. The basic homophobia entrenched in so much of sports was still there obviously, but it was never directed straight at me. My fear kept my true self as hidden as possible.

Meeting Anthony, and finding the person I thought was the one other gay guy in basketball, meant everything to me. We connected immediately and were attached at the hip. We never discussed our attractions openly at the start - we were just guy-friends talking hoops. But we both knew. It was the ultimate unspoken bond. Over the years we formed a connection that was as special as they come. We were as close as two people could possibly be. No one knows me better than Anthony.

It made it even more special that we both shared the love of the game. We connected as people with our love for basketball.

If it weren’t for him I wouldn’t have gone to Providence College for a year and then transferred to Bryant, where I had a successful college career. He was my motivator, he kept me focused and pushed me to always be better. It was everything a partner would do for someone they love. I certainly would not have had the successes I had, and probably wouldn’t be coaching college basketball where I am today, if it weren’t for him and our secret relationship.

Slowly I became more comfortable with myself, and Anthony did as well. I felt both pressure and fear rise in me. All of those early years, just beginning to explore my sexuality, were filled with a bit of denial - As comfort rose I realized someday I would have to embrace and accept that this is who I am, and that I will need to be honest with people about it.

In those secretive years, I had grown accustomed to a lot of lying and deceiving. When you’re lying to everyone about who your are at your core, lying about everything else gets easy. Those habits and behaviors were very toxic for every aspect of my life. Slowly, piece by piece, I became detached from everyone, including Anthony. I ran from everything that was real in my life to try and keep myself hidden.

That’s what the closet does to you, and it did it to me in the worst way: Detaching from my family and my best friend.

As I met other gay men in sports, and other gay men with similar interests to mine, I found so many people that I felt I could connect with on a level that made our sexual orientation somewhat coincidental. That was crucial for me. I found people in the community whom I didn’t have to spend my time relating to just because we were gay, but because we liked the same kinds of things. It’s one of the things that had drawn me to Anthony - our mutual love of basketball. I can’t give enough credit to the friends in the community I have made for helping me reach this moment.

As a leap of faith, basically due to Anthony and Cyd Zeigler, I decided last year to attend the Nike LGBT Sports Summit. I met so many people there - gay people in sports - who made me finally realize that this day would come.

To see that support group of people, who have all been working for so many years in sports, was incredibly powerful and inspiring. Being able to learn and talk with members from all parts of the LGBT community sank in just how important being able to tell my story would be, and how there is a responsibility that comes along with meeting these people and being in the positions that we are in the athletic world.

The work of all the people who’ve come before me makes sharing my true self something that is a responsibility, not just a choice.

The Supreme Court decision in June legalizing same-sex marriage was probably the time when I knew without a doubt that I was going to do this. When I saw how powerful it was for people, and when I had the time to sit and think about how this affects me and has shaped my own journey in life, it became a no-brainer.

I thought of the people who never got to see that day, who fought for equal rights but didn’t get their time. They deserve to be validated and recognized for their efforts and for their struggles. That day, when the Supreme Court released its decision, was when I knew beyond anything else: This is all bigger than myself.

There is no greater feeling than being a part of something bigger than just you. That’s what has always made sports so special for me.

Since I started telling people in college basketball over the last few months, I’ve realized my fears were far worse than reality. I’ve realized that people, for the most part, are human beings first. For a guy who’s relatively cynical and can be negative, the reactions of people in my sport and in my life have shut me right up and re-energized my hope in the human spirit, in empathy.

You’ve got to give the majority of people credit for changing attitudes and credit to all the people who have worked to make that possible. Things have gone fairly well for me so far.

Like the people before me, I hope my story empowers someone, even if it’s just one person. But it’s a process for everyone.

My advice: Take your time and be comfortable. Everyone’s personal journey is special and unique, and no one should feel pressure to do anything they aren’t comfortable with.

But always know this: When the time comes to share your true self, you will feel so much love and relief and hope and freedom. It’s a truly special feeling, and I just can’t thank enough every single person who has helped guide and support me to this point.

A week after Outsports published his essay in October 2015, co-founder Cyd Zeigler reached out to Burns to ask him a question, as he recounted in this story:

When I asked Burns today if he had received any negative reactions to his coming out, he texted me two words: “Not one.”

This morning he shared an incredible post on Facebook that reflects the incredible relief he feels after coming out publicly, and his hope of having an even more powerful impact going forward for those people still struggling:

I’ve spent a better part of my adult life living in fear of people finding out my ‘secret.’ I thought I wouldn’t be accepted, that I might have to walk away from the sport I’ve loved all my life. The response I’ve received this week, though, has eliminated that fear. I am so grateful to every person that has reached out, shown support, and told me their story. In reading and responding to the overwhelming number of text messages, emails, Facebook posts/messages and phone calls, I have learned what it means to feel true purpose. That my story can reach and touch the lives of even a few people means the world to me. I’ll remember the love I felt this week forever. It has filled me with optimism as I move forward with a fuller, more authentic life.

Three years ago, Burns updated Outsports readers on how his life had changed. Here’s the excerpt from his follow-up essay of October 16, 2016:

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since I made the decision to share my life publicly with the world. It has certainly been a busy year, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take the time to reflect on just how much my life has changed in the past 12 months.

Since last October 7, I have gone to work every day and worried about nothing except... work. I have shared things with my friends and my co-workers that 13 months ago I would have kept completely to myself. In the past year, I have felt the freedom of what it’s like to make jokes with the people in my life about my ‘type;’ I have brought dates around friends and family; and I have felt peace in social situations in which I was previously calculated and uptight.

Today, some of my favorite moments are when friends ask me a question about my personal life. Whether the question is simple or complex, I find immense pleasure in my ability to answer truthfully and without shame. Those moments are what I’ve been waiting for my entire adult life – to not hesitate or tense up, to not have to lie on the fly.

There really is no substitute for authenticity. It is both cathartic and addictive, and something I savor and continually crave. Yet, I’d be lying if I said my life is completely different, and that’s the beautiful dichotomy in this process. I’ve been able to go back to the person I always was before my sexuality became my foremost struggle.

After five years at Bryant University, Burns left Rhode Island for Washington, D.C. in 2017.

In October 2018, he returned to New England to join the broadcast team at WOON-AM radio for coverage of the Bulldogs. According to his LinkedIn profile, he’s also been working as a motivational speaker since 2017.

We send Chris Burns our best wishes, and our thanks!

Tomorrow — and every day in October — we’ll look back at another moment in LGBTQ sports history.