They're always there. The spouses. The family. The children. The support system around the athlete. The private part that makes their public selves human.
They're always there, but rarely has a sports event become so much about the private people as the recently concluded Masters. It started with the story of a famous golfer and his wife. It ended with the story of a famous golfer and his wife. Just a very different story.
In a refreshing twist, both wives of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson (one absent, one waiting through the final holes) were treated as real people who have a large and lasting impact in their famous husbands' lives. Not just as the pretty accessories who greet them at 18.
The personal side of an athlete is always there, always intriguing. Whether it is Drew Brees cradling his baby boy after winning the Super Bowl or the English tabloids fascination with the soccer WAGs (wives and girlfriends), the athlete's private life is always in play. Which is why it's so strange when the athlete seems surprised by that reality -- like Woods. Take the photos of my pretty wife and children, ignore the strippers behind the curtain. Like he gets to choose.
These days, we're asked to accept the athlete as social commentator, pitch person, public figure. Someone who matters outside of competition.
So we draw clues from how they treat the people who matter most to them. That's why the new Woods' commercial using his late father's voice is so disgusting. After years of hearing how special his relationship with his father was, Woods is willing to exploit it in an effort to sell Nike's golf line. Beyond gross.
The long-suffering wife is as much a part of the sports scene as creepy agents and flashy cars. After the Thanksgiving night scandal blew up, and Woods' personal life began to unravel, many insisted it was a yawn. Just a personal matter between him and his wife and children.
Well, sure, but if you want to sell us a watch and a car and an image, we'll judge you on how you treat the person who elbows you in the middle of the night to stop you from snoring so loudly.
The spouse makes the athlete human. Without the context of interpersonal interactions, an athlete is reduced to a statistics machine. The kind of two-dimensional character that we can see on video games -- but those avatars are simpler because they never come with messy divorces or police reports.
Of course, there's a huge danger in assuming that any public glimpse of a relationship is true insight into a private world. There's a temptation to read volumes into Elin Woods' absence from Augusta. We can guess but we don't know the whole story.
There's already a deification of Mickelson for his commitment to his wife. While most people around golf are familiar with Amy Mickelson -- since she's been the most outgoing wife on the tour for years -- and all sympathize with her cancer plight, we should know better than to make assumptions about anyone these days.
Just a few years ago Ginny and Tiki Barber were being held up as a model couple. Now they're just more Internet fodder. Just another tale of human foibles.
As we saw with the fascinating Masters, we very much like our athletes to be human.