Wives of Athletes Have to Play Ball

Wives of professional jocks find ways to cope, says researcher

MONDAY, Oct. 15, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Adultery, "fast-food" sex, long periods away from home, frequent moves. Welcome to the world of the professional athlete -- and the stressful world of the sports wife.

How do these women cope? The women who end up as athletes' wives tend to be exceptionally strong and resilient, notes Steven M. Ortiz, an assistant professor of sociology at Oregon State University in Corvallis. As one of the wives told Ortiz: "If you're not a strong woman, you're never going to make it as a wife of a professional athlete. Weak women can't survive."

Ortiz spent four years interviewing the wives of 47 professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey players. He went to ball games and barbecues with the women, baby-sat their kids, helped them hang drapes and ran errands to the store. His resulting study is a portrait of the women, mostly full-time homemakers, who stand in the shadow of their high-profile husbands.

"It wasn't hard to get them [the women] to talk," says Ortiz, who presented his findings at a recent meeting of the American Sociological Association in Anaheim, Calif. "They felt that they were being unfairly stereotyped by the public. They wanted the public to have some insight as to the different kinds of demands and pressures they had to cope with."

Adultery -- or at least the idea of it -- played a big part in the women's lives. Although Ortiz was told that only about four husbands in the sample group had cheated on their spouses (including one husband who had eight affairs with eight different women in the first six months of his marriage), it was clear to Ortiz that a "culture of adultery" and a "fast-food sex mentality" pervaded professional sports. Fear of adultery was a great source of stress for the wives.

There are for starters, the endless road trips that take players away from their wives and families for extended periods. Add to that the unwritten code everyone is expected to obey stipulating that whatever happens on the road stays on the road. Even other wives who are traveling with the players and who witness extramarital affairs are expected to keep silent.

"That's when I first began to think about this as an institutionalization of adultery, a fast sex mentality," says Ortiz. "It's a world where traditional masculinity has become the norm and, in that particular world, women are often objectified or given second-class status. They're not seen as equal."

Even beyond the adultery issue, this hyper-masculine culture can erode a woman's self-esteem. "The identity issue is stressful because [the women] are viewed as an extension of their husbands," says Ortiz. "And that can go to self-esteem issues because they're not ever really recognized or rewarded for who they are and what they do in the marriage. Yet clearly, without their support, their husbands wouldn't be as successful as they are."

The women also live in social isolation -- away from the larger world and often also away from their husbands. "The career dominates the family. Family life, parenting, all that revolves around the husband's career, so the wife accommodates or defers to his career in terms of family life," says Ortiz.

The wives also tend to cope by "normalizing" the situations, accepting all these things as normal: It's normal that her husband is going to be away much of the season. It's normal that the wife and family of a major league baseball player might move four times over the course of the year. Ortiz interviewed one woman who learned on the radio that her husband had been traded and that the family would be moving cross country. Her husband hadn't called her because he was too busy running for a plane to his new team and their new home.

Normal to them, maybe. Not normal to the rest of the world. "In a typical marriage, in my observation, if a man is offered a better job some place else, he sits down with his wife and they discuss it," says Clifford Swensen, professor emeritus of psychological sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "I was reading a case here [recently] about a man who was offered a big promotion and a big raise, and he and his wife sat down and discussed it and felt they didn't want to uproot [their] children."

The results Ortiz has presented so far leaves many questions unanswered. "I'm very curious about the women's lifestyles -- what education did they have, did they have careers," says Suzanne Cherrin, assistant professor of women's studies at the University of Delaware in Newark. N.J.

Ortiz promises that all this will be revealed in his forthcoming book.

What To Do

For research and information on the institution of marriage as well as numerous links, visit the National Marriage Project.

If you think marriage has changed in the last 2,000 years, you're right. Check out how the Romans used to handle adultery.

SOURCES: Interviews with Steven Ortiz, Ph.D., assistant professor, sociology, Oregon State University, Corvallis; Clifford Swensen, Ph.D., professor emeritus, psychological sciences, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.; Suzanne Cherrin, Ph.D., assistant professor, women's studies, University of Delaware, Newark; Aug. 20, 2001, presentation at annual meeting of American Sociological Association, Anaheim, Calif.
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