This is the third in a four-part series examining the intricacies of being an NFL wife. Part 1 on the struggle to maintain an identity can be found here. Part 2 on the rules of being an NFL wife can be found here.
The first time I heard of a specific instance of infidelity in the NFL was when one of my husband's teammates left his wife after she uncovered a love letter that he wrote to another woman. She went home for a couple of weeks to be with her family. When she returned home, the locks had been changed and the other woman was living in her house.
For years, I believed that player's infidelity was an isolated incident and that the other NFL players were all good family men. The fear of infidelity is ever-present among NFL wives but they downplay the risks inherent in NFL relationships and in their own relationships through group-talk. “The players don’t have time to cheat,” other NFL wives and I reasoned. “They’re not like baseball or basketball players. When they’re out of town, their time is accounted for, and the rest of the time they are at practice or in meetings when they’re not at home.”
One wife told me, "We are so lucky to be married to such great men and we’re lucky they are NFL players and not baseball players. Other athletes cheat on their wives, but NFL marriages are safer than those in other sports. I think it’s because the players are not away from home for long periods of time.”
But, as more and more stories of infidelity surfaced, I realized that if an NFL player wants to cheat, he can always find a way
One NFL wife was out to dinner one night at a club when the manager said they were closing early for an NFL team party. She was surprised, “My husband plays for that team,” she told the manager. He let her stay. She sat in the corner of the room and watched nearly a dozen of her husband’s married teammates enter the club without their wives. Scantily clad women, none of whom the woman recognized, followed the players. Over the next hour, she watched married players kiss and dance with women who were not their wives. A different NFL wife shared that a rookie player was asked by a married veteran to book a room in the team hotel under the rookie’s name for the married player’s girlfriend.
The stories of infidelity still seemed like stories that happened to others until one of my close friends came to me with a story of her own. Her husband cheated on her while he was playing in another city. They had two young children and his position on the team was insecure, so she decided to stay in their hometown rather than follow him. “No NFL wife should ever live apart from her husband” she told me later. “I don’t think I will ever get over what he did. It’s awful,” she said.
Some NFL girlfriends put up with infidelity before marriage with the expectation that the player will be faithful to her after they wed. An NFL wife who dated her husband since middle school recalled the rules of her relationship changing in college when he became a collegiate football star. “Women started going crazy for him and his teammates, and he was spending more and more time out at bars and parties with his teammates. Soon after, I started hearing rumors that he was cheating on me. When I confronted him, he admitted that it was true. His excuse was that he wasn’t ready to get married. I had to make a choice—put up with his cheating or get out of the relationship. I knew I wanted to marry him someday, so I waited. When he finally proposed, after being in the NFL for three years, he promised that he would always be faithful. I believed him. Things are different in football. It’s not their fault that women throw themselves at them. But, when they’re married, then they should be faithful ... and he is,” she said.
Despite spending seven years as an NFL wife, I don’t know how many marriages in the NFL, or even among our friends, suffered from infidelity. I believe that most NFL players are good men with good morals who love their wives and children. But marital infidelity is not typically discussed among acquaintances and even close friends sometimes hide such details to protect their marriages.
From my time in the field, I have seen that NFL players are under increased temptations as their celebrity status attracts women who might not have otherwise been attracted to them. Beyond that, sex is closely linked with football at all stages of the game. Cheerleaders dance on the sidelines and some colleges have even been known to hire hookers to lure in high school prospects. At a players-only Super Bowl party, my husband and I witnessed scantily clad women who were hired to dance on a stage built around the bar.
NFL wives feel increased pressure to look sexy for their husbands, particularly in public, and to make sure their husbands are sexually satisfied at home. Fans weigh in, even on draft day, about the appearances of players’ wives, good and bad, as if they know what an NFL wife should be. As a feminist, the idea of submission of any kind repulses me. But I learned that to be a “good NFL wife,” you have to give 100% of who you are to your husband. You cannot depend on him, particularly during the NFL season, but he should be able to depend on you—for everything.
Soon after marrying Craig, a veteran NFL wife told me that it was my job as Craig’s wife to give him sex any time he wanted it. “If you are saying no, there will be someone else saying yes,” she explained. She and her husband later divorced.
Another NFL wife told me, “I know that as his wife it is my job to submit to him sexually, but he asks for sex at least three times a day. My body is tired and I can’t perform that often. Besides, it seems like the more I have sex with him the more he wants sex. It just never ends."
In other instances wives complained that they don’t get enough sex from their husbands because during the season players are too tired and their bodies are too sore. “I stood in front of him with my shirt off, trying to attract his gaze from the television," one woman said. "He finally looked at me, but he only said, ‘Excuse me.’ I put my shirt back on and went to bed. Even though I wanted to have sex with him, I knew his need to rest should come first,” she said.
A typical NFL wife does not have the luxury of distributing household chores or negotiating the details of their relationships like many women in non-NFL relationships. Their job, instead, is to take care of their husbands. They protect his career by withholding any details that might be distracting. When wives share details that could be upsetting to their husbands, they feel a sense of guilt for having burdened him with their troubles.
An NFL wife explained, “We broke up once a couple of years ago because he thought that the added stress of a girlfriend was affecting his play on the field. So, I stayed away for a while during the season but then he was still playing poorly so we got back together. Eventually, things turned around and he played great again. Because I know he thinks about it, I try to do everything I can to make his life easier during the season and to make sure he’s playing well. I don’t want him to leave again because I’m making him play worse than he would without a girlfriend. I’m especially careful not to bother him the day or two before games. If I am really upset about something or if he really messed up, then I’ll save it for Monday or even Sunday night after the game. We don’t talk before the game after he leaves on Saturday, so that helps me keep it to myself. Then when I finally can get things off my chest he has time to process what I’ve said and we can work through it before the following game.”
The NFL dominates in times of disharmony, too. The season is busy, so the idea of burdening an NFL player with problems, including problems so severe that you want to leave the relationship, would be irrational and could cause him to play poorly. Even NFL wives who don’t like their husbands don’t want them to play poorly. Poor play could mean he gets cut. If he gets cut, the checks stop. Likewise, divorcing before the NFL season ends could be costly. With a rookie minimum salary in 2016 of $450,000, paid out over 17 weeks, a rookie will earn $26,000 each week. If an NFL wife who wants a divorce will get 50% of what he’s earned, choosing to stay until the season is over could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Before I moved to Seattle with Craig, I sat down to interview the only NFL wife I knew, Anne. She disclosed the intricacies and hardships of her marriage with a former NFL player, which ended in divorce. Her story was frightening, disheartening, and sad. Our conversation reiterated what I had learned about professional sports wives from the research literature: These women struggle to maintain an individual identity in the hyper-masculine culture of male professional sports, fearing infidelity, and feeling trapped in a socially isolating and restricted world. In my relationship with Craig, I had never consciously feared adultery, social isolation, or a lack of identity. Part of my impetus for my studies was to find out for myself, first hand, whether the previous researchers’ conclusions matched the lived realities of current NFL wives. Was Craig destined to turn out like Anne’s ex-husband who was a drug addict and stole money from his family that he used on drugs and failed businesses? Would my story someday read like Anne’s? I wanted to get inside NFL relationships, including my own. Frankly, I realize now that I wanted to prove the others wrong, but I had to remain open to the possibility that they could be right. Over a decade later, I'm happy to say that my marriage never took that dark turn I feared, but at the same time, I've seen clearly that the horror stories of the past are not far-fetched fables either.