CORVALLIS - Many wives of professional male athletes have to consider the possibility of their husbands' infidelity, particularly during a long season with numerous road trips. How they handle their fear and stress varies and may depend on their motivation for marriage, a study suggests.
A "culture of adultery" permeates professional sports today, says Steven M. Ortiz, an assistant professor of sociology at Oregon State University. Ortiz presented the findings of his research on the little known survival techniques of athletes' wives at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association on Monday in Anaheim, Calif.
"At home and especially on the road, these athletes deal with boredom, peer group pressure, team loyalty, opportunity, sense of self-importance, and the availability of women who seem to be irresistibly attracted to professional athletes," Ortiz said.
"There clearly seems to be a 'fast food sex mentality' among professional athletes."
While media accounts of the sexual exploits of athletes aren't new, little has been written about how wives respond to adultery - and to the possibility of adultery. Ortiz conducted his study as a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Berkeley in the 1990s, where he worked with noted scholars Arlie Russell Hochschild and Harry Edwards. As part of that study, over a four-year period, he interviewed the wives of 47 different professional athletes in the four major team sports - football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
What emerged from those interviews were profiles of adaptation, as wives developed coping strategies that often evolved over time. The wives who were interviewed also identified a category of wives who were drawn to marriage more for the glamour and money than for love or the relationship. "It may be that women who marry the 'athlete' more than the 'man' tend may be more accepting of their husbands' affairs," Ortiz said. "Not only do they fear losing financial security and the affluent lifestyle, they often possess low self-esteem."
Women who married before their husbands became professional athletes - including most of the interviewed wives - did not tolerate long-term extramarital affairs, though many were forced to deal with their spouses' one-time only "one-night stand."
Ortiz found a major difference between new wives and wives who had been married to an athlete for 10 to 15 years.
"The majority of the new wives truly didn't know what they were getting in for," Ortiz said, "and often they have to learn the ropes from the veteran wives. The wife of a baseball player who has been married and 'in the league' for 15 years can be fairly hardened. She has seen, or heard, it all."
And when she hears from her husband that he's had an affair, Ortiz says, she has to make a decision - to cope with it, or to dissolve the marriage. Most will give the husband the benefit of the doubt, he pointed out, though the wives will use the incident to set a few ground rules.
"One thing that I learned from the interviews is that these women are strong," Ortiz said. "If they don't know what the lifestyle is like, they quickly learn. And then they develop strategies to manage that ongoing stress. The strategies vary in confronting the 'possibility' of marital infidelity since the possibility is always there, though the infidelity may not be.
"Some of the wives use humor, while others may change the boundaries of trust in the relationship," he added. "Whatever strategies they rely on, they continue to manage the family life. Most of the wives are very strong, intelligent and resilient. That's why the men married them in the first place." Ortiz said some strategies for handling the stress of possible infidelity have negative consequences. Some wives are in denial and don't want to talk about it. Others acknowledge the issue constantly and may feel like they are pressuring their husbands for constant reassurance.
"Many wives of professional athletes engage in 'suspicion management,'" Ortiz said. "It's all in their approach to the issue. Some wives look for signs that their husband has been unfaithful; others may deny the possibility by avoiding the issue completely. They are different strategies of dealing with the same fears."
The sexual lives of professional athletes is an area that the management of most teams would like to ignore, and by and large, they do, Ortiz said. However, media scrutiny transcends privacy issues in instances like the Gold Club racketeering trial, and public affairs endured by star athletes.
Outsiders tend to view those incidents as the tip of an iceberg, and Ortiz says that depiction may be accurate. There exists a culture of adultery, he said, that managers and coaches usually ignore, that fellow players may often encourage, and with which the wives must contend.
"These men spend so much time together practicing, working and traveling, that they bond very closely," Ortiz said. "I would argue that in certain ways, many of them are closer to their teammates than they are to their wives and families. Yet it is the women who become the support system without which many men could not survive.
"I talked to one woman who learned on the radio that her husband had been traded to a team across the country. He didn't call her because he was trying to catch a plane to his new team. It is the wives, though, who must pack up the furniture, pull the kids out of school, sell the house and move the family. And this is very common in their world, as it is in other career-dominated marriages."
Ortiz, who recently joined the faculty at Oregon State University after teaching simultaneously at Sonoma State University and U.C.-Berkeley, specializes in the marital relationships of professional athletes. He is working on a book about sport marriages.
As a former athlete, coach and long-time sports fan, he admits to a curiosity about the private lives of these public husbands.
"As a society, we love our sports heroes," Ortiz said. "Like other celebrities, we want to put star athletes on a pedestal. And then, if we want them to have feet of clay, we pull them down. The wives, though, are there through it all."