Matt Lynch decided to come out as gay to be true to himself. | Kylee Palombo

It’s been a little over two weeks since our staff was officially let go at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. And with the added difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have begun to realize that I may not have a job in college basketball next year.

I have sat on a college basketball bench for the last 10 years. I’ve coached at the Division II level and in Division I women’s basketball, but the bulk of my experience comes from coaching Division I men’s basketball.

This is a scary time for everyone and the unknown is always difficult to deal with. But I have made a decision to use this time to become completely open and honest with myself and the people around me.

I’m gay.

Those are two words that 10 years ago I wasn’t sure I was ever going to admit, let alone say out loud. I always thought I would “die with the lie.” That is how I approached so much of my life, to keep it a secret, to never let anyone know that side of me, to hide and bury all those feelings.

That was my plan. I threw myself into my career. I worked hard to climb the ladder, learning as much as I could as quickly as I could. And always looking for the next opportunity. From my alma mater Edinboro University in Pennsylvania to Miami (Ohio). Then from Miami to Youngstown State and finally to the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Each stop taught me more and more, and the crazy thing about it was it never felt like work. I am 29 years old, and I haven’t “worked” a day in my life.

I learned at a young age that life is about people and the relationships you build with them. I got into coaching because of my high school coach. He was also one of the more popular teachers at my school because he was younger and could relate to the students.

We would work hard in his class, but he always found ways to have fun, and make us laugh. He gave me an opportunity when it came to basketball and pushed me to be better than what I thought I was capable of being. He was the first person outside of my parents who saw potential in me.

Because of my experiences with him and my teammates, I became hooked on the idea of becoming a coach. I wanted to find ways to impact other people’s lives the way that my coach impacted me. After all, I have come to understand what the definition of “coach” really means: to move a person or object from one point to another — move your players forward and make them better.

So as I chased the dream of becoming a basketball coach, I found myself getting lost in my work. I didn’t think about being gay or that part of me as much. I didn’t date, I didn’t talk about it, and it got to the point that I almost began to believe that I could shut that side of my life “off.”

I became very good at what I do. When other coaches on the staff would go home at night to their wife and kids, I would stay at the office. I would keep working, keep learning. This helped my career, but I didn’t realize the negative effects it would have on my mental health.

In coaching, meaningful relationships became my expertise. I could relate to my players. I would get to know them, their families, their friends and even their girlfriends. I earned a master’s in Sports Psychology from Miami and that helped teach me how to reach my guys.

The most important thing is that “people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Over time I built up relationships with my players. I have had the privilege to coach some unbelievable people. From professional athletes to doctors, and everyone in between, I have created relationships with young people and I have accomplished my goal as a coach: move my players forward and make them better.

I neglected to take care of one person: myself.

During the last 10 years as I was working day and night to better the lives of the young people around me, I neglected to take care of one person: myself. I worked so hard to shut off that side of my life, that I built up a sort of self-homophobia.

I don’t know why I assumed being gay was wrong, but I tried to just be “normal” (that is, straight). But I didn’t realize the effect that would have on my long-term health. Being gay weighed on my mind, day and night, more and more. So I would just work harder at coaching, and bury those thoughts and feelings.

During the season I would be so busy that it wouldn’t become a huge deal. But every year when the season would end in March, I would go into a depression. I didn’t have basketball to hide behind, and I became stuck alone with my thoughts. I was trapped in my own head, which was a very dangerous place to be.

Eventually, enough became enough. I had to tell someone. So I did. It wasn’t exactly planned, and it took some liquid courage, but it happened nonetheless. One person turned into two, then three, etc. And eventually I worked up the courage to tell someone in the coaching profession.

This coach and I built a relationship unlike any other that I’ve had. He and I worked extremely hard, but we just had so much fun doing it. We were more than colleagues, we were friends, and everyone knew us as “The Duo.”

I asked this coach to meet me for a beer after work, something we had done a hundred times before, and then after a couple of drinks, I asked him to read a note that I had written on my phone.

The note explained that I was gay. He read it, smiled, got up and gave me a hug, then slapped me on my butt and said, “You probably like that don’t you?” We erupted in laughter. He didn’t care, which gave me an enormous amount of confidence to be myself. That moment initiated a series of events that led to me becoming my authentic self.

I’ve told colleagues, players, friends and family. And to this day I have only received positive feedback, with the occasional “are you sure? Because I just don’t see it.” I am truly blessed to have some great people in my life.

Telling my players was always something I struggled with, not because I didn’t think they would support me, but because I didn’t want our relationship to change. I didn’t want to be known as the “Gay Basketball Coach.”

I was taking one of my UNCW guys out to dinner and I sent him a text before we went and said that we needed to talk about some “real life sh*t.” Over the years, this player and I grew very close and we constantly talked about changing the direction of the program, and hanging an NCAA Tournament banner. So I was nervous to tell him, because this player was very important to me.

We had some small talk for a while and then I got to the point and just came out with it: “I’m gay.” At first, he just looked at me, then he said “you’re lying” about five times. Once I assured him that it was true, he replied that it didn’t change anything, and that he was rocking with me no matter what, brothers for life.

You really do get a “coming out high” after you tell someone.

Immediately after that he grew quiet and as he digested it he became more and more comfortable with the idea. Then the questions came. I don’t know how everyone feels about it, but I don’t mind the questions, it helps me to talk about it sometimes. You really do get a “coming out high” after you tell someone. He has since jokingly asked me if I have a “baby boy” in my life, and we both laugh.

Each player’s reaction has been a little different, but all of them have been positive.

One of my guys was playing overseas when I told him and he called me immediately and was excited. He too started asking me question after question, and wanted specifics. He then spent an hour explaining to me how this makes me even more marketable and how it is such an advantage in the coaching profession. An advantage? Are you crazy? It was the first time in my life that I had heard someone call my biggest secret an advantage. It was just refreshing to hear how positive he was about it. The relationships with my players have changed, but change isn’t necessarily bad and I feel it has just brought us all closer.

I think it’s important for me to be publicly out. Not only for me and my mental health, but for anyone else out there like me.

The goal isn’t to come out of the closet, it’s to eliminate the closet.

Growing up I would look for role models in the coaching profession. They weren’t there, at least publicly. It’s important that I try and share my story and do my part to help normalize being gay. The goal isn’t to come out of the closet, it’s to eliminate the closet. I look forward to the day when “coming out” and having to make an announcement, is just a thing of the past.

Back to the now. I am probably a little crazy to decide to make this so public with everything else that is going on (like being unemployed, or a worldwide pandemic or a hiring freeze throughout the coaching profession).

But I wanted to try and find a way use a negative time for something positive. I don’t know if I will be able to get another college basketball job as an openly gay coach, but I refuse to take any job where I am not my authentic self. I refuse to die with the lie.

Editor’s update: Lynch’s story was featured in the March 8, 2024, New York Times.

Matt Lynch, 29, is a college basketball coach with 10 years of experience. He most recently served as an assistant coach and director of basketball operations at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. A coaching change in March 2020 has him currently looking at new career opportunities. He graduated from Edinboro University in Pennsylvania in 2013 with a degree in Health and Education. After graduation he was hired at Miami University of Ohio, where he went on to earn a master’s degree in Sports Psychology. He can be reached on Instagram and Twitter or by email ([email protected]).

If you’re an LGBTQ person in sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators and other non-athletes in sports.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim ([email protected])