Kelly McNiff never explicitly hid her sexuality. She just never really told anybody.
That started to change four years ago, when she married the love of her life. And now, she wants the world to know, starting with her basketball team.
“It’s amazing the different feeling,” McNiff told Outsports. “It didn’t feel like I was stressed or holding back, because I didn’t officially come out in my professional life. But it’s amazing how much better I do feel now that I have done it.”
McNiff met Shelley Dietz when she started her collegiate basketball career at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. The small public university, which is roughly 86 miles northeast of the system’s signature campus, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a women’s basketball powerhouse.
Dietz also played basketball at Oshkosh, and was a senior on their national championship club. She helped out as an assistant coach when McNiff was on the team, and they quickly bonded, initially over playing the same position. Soon, they started to talk about everything, including boys.
More on that in a moment.
As a player at UW Oshkosh, McNiff experienced great success. She helped the team compile a 98-15 overall record, and the Titans qualified for the NCAA Division III championship all four years she was on the squad. As a senior in 2000, McNiff averaged 6.1 points, 3.3 rebounds and a team-high 3.1 assists per game.
She was also part of the softball team, which reached the NCAA Division III tournament in 1997.
Upon graduation, McNiff got into coaching, and eventually settled in at the high school level. She won a state championship in 2012 and was awarded various coaching honors.
To supplement her coaching income, McNiff taught middle school physical education and health. Suffice to say, her enthusiasm for teaching the human anatomy did not match her gusto for the hardwood.
“I took a few sick days to watch film, and knew college was my destination,” McNiff told me in our phone conversation.
Throughout this time, McNiff was dating Dietz, which wasn’t an entirely new thing for them. In college, they often went on double dates — except they were each accompanied by their boyfriends. Dietz was seeing McNiff’s high school basketball coach, and she was dating a guy on the school track team.
Dietz was the first one who realized she was gay, and broke up with McNiff’s high school coach. Soon thereafter, McNiff also started experiencing problems in her relationship. Dietz realized the similarities. They talked about that a lot.
Then Dietz moved from Oshkosh up to Green Bay with a new circle of friends. In McNiff’s words, “it just sort of happened.”
The best friends began dating. Then it was time to tell dad. He wasn’t surprised.
“He kind of responded, ‘well, I kind of thought something. You two fight like an old married couple,’” McNiff said. “So that’s it. There hasn’t been a big story or ‘ah-hah’ moment.”
That’s how McNiff publicly presented her relationship with Dietz for the next several years: no big story. Dietz was visible and came around often (a parent once asked McNiff if Dietz wanted a t-shirt commemorating the high school team’s state tournament run), but McNiff didn’t formally introduce her as her partner.
It was just kind of unspoken. McNiff says she thought that was the safest way.
“Being in athletics, teaching middle school-aged children, coaching high school girls, coaching females at the college level, sometimes I focused more on the horror stories that are out there, instead of the positive ones that are out there,” McNiff said.
McNiff returned to her alma mater in 2014, and coached the Titans to the NCAA Division III Sweet Sixteen in 2014, 2017, and 2019. She also started opening up a little bit. She invited some players to her 2016 wedding.
But the big shift happened last year. McNiff took a job at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, which is about 160 miles southwest of Oshkosh — right up against the Iowa border. During quarantine, Dietz moved in with her. It is the first time they’ve lived under the same roof full-time for five years (Dietz, a high school and college basketball official, previously lived in Green Bay).
Even before the move-in, McNiff started to open up more.
“It’s been starting to hit me like, ‘why not?,’” she said. “There’s no reason I can’t share my personal life with players.”
The first step was a Zoom work meeting. During a conversation with co-workers about work-life balance, McNiff casually talked about Dietz moving in with her.
“That was like a weight off my shoulders — a weight I didn’t know I had,” McNiff said.
Then came the team meal. Earlier this month, McNiff invited her players over, and introduced Dietz as her wife. They showed no discernible reaction.
“I’m sure most of them — kids are pretty smart these days and observant,” McNiff said. “There were no wide eyes. It was just like, ‘OK,’ and then we went back to what we were doing.”
Now that she’s publicly out, McNiff says she wishes she realized people were more accepting. She’s freer than she’s ever felt.
“I just look back at past athletes I’ve had, whether it’s in high school or college, who have come out, and just kind of live life freely, and super happy, and part of me wishes I had realized it was OK to do that sooner,” McNiff said. “Just now, to have told co-workers and the current team, it’s amazing how much lighter I feel.”