Scott Bova thought he’d never come out to his fellow football and baseball officials in high school and college. He had decided he’d live two lives — privately gay, and a single “straight” guy with his fellow officials — the rest of his life.
It’s been with his now-husband, and through seeing other gay officials come out publicly, that he has found both the confidence to come out to everyone in his life, and the interest in doing so to help others like him.
“When I saw the Outsports article about [Pac-12 referee] Steve Strimling, that did a lot for me in my journey,” Bova told Outsports from his home in Indiana. “And I’m reading [former MLB umpire] Dale Scott’s book, and about his journey. And now it’s time for me, and it’s time for us as a community to say we have a place at the table.”
Bova has been officiating sports for over 35 years. Starting in baseball, earning NCAA assignments there, then entering football and doing the same in that sport, he’s an umpire in the Division II Great Midwest Athletic Conference (GMAC) and a Division I replay official in the Collegiate Officiating Consortium. The COC staffs officials for Big Ten, Mid-American and Missouri Valley football games, among others.
“Scott is a smart guy, and I like smart people,” said former NFL referee and current COC supervisor Bill Carollo. “I like his thought process and his determination. He doesn’t just tell me he wants to do this work, he also works really hard at it. He’s analytical. He’s very organized.
“It takes a lot of skills to be a replay official. To me, he stuck out in a group of people when we crossed paths. He has the skills I was looking for.”
Through all of that, and with all the accolades and advancing to NCAA assignments, Bova still felt for years he could never come out to his fellow officials.
“I was essentially living two lives,” Bova said. “With my work and officiating and all of my friends and colleagues, I was a straight guy, always single and looking. And in my private time not occupied in sports, I was on gay dating apps looking for a relationship.”
When he met his now-husband, Dylan Friddle, there was suddenly a reason to bring all of his worlds together. Still, he thought he never could.
“I told Dylan he needed to understand I was deathly afraid of coming out, losing friendships, losing good assignments,” he said. “People wouldn’t want to be in the locker room with me, I thought. And some of that was based on life experiences and commentary I heard, and some of it was irrational.
“I told him we’re going to have two lives. When I’m in sports mode, you’re my friend, my bro. And outside of sports, we can be boyfriends.”
Bova had heard a lot in the college baseball and football locker rooms — including language that was at times homophobic — to make him afraid of coming out to any of the people there. Some of the comments made him think they would all reject him if they knew he was gay.
“As a perceived straight white man, the conversations you hear about people not like you, they assume you’re one of them. The jokes, the commentary, I wouldn't say it was hatred, fire and brimstone. But little jokes and punches and names they called people, it hits home.”
Working two different sports at the high school and college levels, he’s noticed a difference in how officials in general — not entirely, but as a collective — interact.
“My experience is baseball is a lot worse than football,” he said. “And that’s all kinds of comments. I loved umpiring baseball, but it’s different [from football] in the locker room.”
Despite all of that, here Bova is, now married to Friddle and sharing his story publicly with everyone across officiating and around the world.
“The thing that changed was one of my close friends, Rich Edwards,” Bova said. Edwards is a center judge in the Mid-American Conference, a Division I FBS conference. “One day Rich called me and told me, ‘Stop, I know.’ That was important for me. It’s a lot easier when someone just says, ‘I love you and it doesn’t matter and move on and I’m happy for you.’
“That was what turned the tide. And we talked and I said I was worried it would affect my career, and he said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’”
Bova has since stopped worrying as much about who knows he’s gay, or that he is married to Friddle.
He’s also stopped working college baseball, focusing on football and his marriage.
“Doing two NCAA sports is not good for a relationship,” said Bova, who balances all of this with his work life as President and CEO of Triangle Education Foundation. “And baseball is the worst. Not only are you gone long weekends all spring, you also have Tuesday and Wednesday games that can be up to a three-hour drive. That wasn’t helpful to building a stable relationship.”
Amongst his fellow football officials, he hasn’t felt any distance as he’s been more open with many of them about his personal life. In fact, some of the officials he’d worked with in the past were at his wedding.
In particular, he’s felt support from Carollo, the COC supervisor who has placed diversity at the top of his priorities as a supervisor of officials for the Big Ten, among others.
“I feel very welcomed, and I appreciate what Bill Carollo has done in his championing of diversity at the COC,” Bova said. “I do think, in the bigger picture of diversity in officiating, we need to expand how we view diversity. We need to be more proactive in welcoming in Latinos, Asian officials, and the LGBT community.”
Carollo has placed Bova on a committee for the COC looking at diversity amongst the football-officiating ranks.
“Can you officiate? If you can, you’re good for this program,” Carollo said. “I don’t care who you are. I’m not giving anyone a free ticket to officiating just because they’re gay, and I’m not going to exclude them because they’re gay, either.”
Bova has earned his stripes in major college football as a gay man. And his opportunities going forward, he and Carollo say, will be a result of his dedication to the sport.