The married Knick entered the team hotel elevator with a hot chick in the bag; I walked in with a chicken sandwich in a sack. "Uh, is that dinner?" he asked, trying extra hard to be nice to a beat writer who knew that the lady draped around his waist like a garland was not his wife. The player soon exited on his floor and did whatever a fella does with a woman sporting stiletto heels and a pierced tongue. At the team shootaround the next morning I saw the Knick, who, with a sly smile, said in an aside, "You know how it is." I should have let the comment slide—but I didn't. "Why even wear a wedding ring?" I asked. Without a pause he said, "It's like a string on your finger: a reminder that you're married." Somewhere in between PICK UP THE DRY CLEANING and FIX THE FAUCET, he needed a Post-it note of his promise to be faithful to his wife.
What appeared to be isolated cases of selective amnesia a dozen years ago now seems like an epidemic. Does any sports god remember his vows while sexting his mistresses? Infidelity may be no more prevalent among athletes than it once was, but on today's bare-all public stage, the topic has become part of the daily sports narrative. How is Tiger Woods coping a year after Hydrant-gate? How will Tony Parker play since he and Eva Longoria have filed for divorce? Usually, such questions are filtered to the audience through broadcaster euphemisms, such as, "He's suffering from a distraction." A sneeze during your backswing is a distraction. But adultery? That's been sorted into the same category as a picnic fly, diminishing the profound destruction of Tiger's marriage while leading to jokes about Brett Favre's rumored cellphone indiscretion and breathless reporting on how Desperate Housewife Eva is apparently trying to scrub off the tattoo of Tony's jersey number, nine. Keep it light, right?
Usually unseen is the spouse's pain—"I have been through the stages of disbelief and shock, to anger and ultimately grief over the loss of the family I so badly wanted for my children," Elin Nordegren told PEOPLE in August, nine months after Tiger's affairs hit the tabloids—but acknowledging this depth of feeling is, well, apparently too deep. Truth is a downer. We are given reality-show portraits on The Real Housewives of New Jersey and Beverly Hills, of D.C. and the O.C., spiced with themes of jealousy and cheating, but what about the real wives of pro athletes?
Tia Robbins, whose husband, Fred, is a defensive tackle for the Rams, has founded Off the Market Events, an organization that produces invitation-only gatherings, usually for sports couples seeking to enrich their relationships. "She didn't start it to stop anyone from cheating," says Pat Tully, a spokesman for Tia and Fred. "She started it as a support group for people with a common background." (Is a public forum always required for private issues?) On the OTM Facebook site there are suggestions for the maintenance of a happy relationship that appear to put the burden of bliss on the wife. On Oct. 18 there were these postings: "Cater to your mate's pleasures and desires, be it fried chicken or a foot massage" and "Hold your tongue for the day and offer compliments rather than criticism." (To kill two birds, a wife could just shut up and cook dinner.) On Sept. 26 another challenge was offered: "Initiate sex" or "Give your mate an overdue compliment." You'd gather then, by OTM logic, that the secret to success of the sporting couple is simply for her to indulge him. But enabling narcissism is how the sports world got to this unflattering reflecting pool.
"Women most likely are in subordinate roles in these relationships," says Steven Ortiz, an associate professor of sociology at Oregon State who has interviewed dozens of elite athletes' spouses. Ortiz is writing a book on the complexities of these marriages, but he's heard a common theme among the wives' tales. "They tell me what [their athlete-husband's] priorities are: His career is first, his mother is second, the team is third, and they are fourth," says Ortiz. The mama's boy syndrome is key because, as Ortiz notes, the self-absorption of an athlete often begins with the overindulgent mother. "When an athlete is coddled, he feels no reason to change," Ortiz says. "It's what I call a fast-food sex mentality." In essence, an athlete feels entitled to have-it-your-way sex whenever the mood strikes.
Operating in this unnerving ethos, Ortiz says, wives tend to hyperfocus on the children and household because that's the world they can control. Outside, it's a petting zoo. "Wives have told me they'll see women rub their bodies against their husbands right in front of them," says Ortiz. "The wife usually bites her tongue in public. And later, when she brings it up, her husband will say, 'What's the big deal? She just wants an autograph.'"
Maybe the Christies, Doug and Jackie, should not have been mocked for their dedication to boundaries during Doug's 15 NBA seasons, when Jackie usually accompanied him on road trips. In an ideal setting—O.K., in a marriage counselor's office—the husband would react as Doug did whenever a vixen came on to him: Back off, I'm married. A response like that from more pro husbands would send a message to the wives who love them, to the young fans who idolize them and to the middle-aged, goatee-wearing suburban guys who wish they were them: A ring is more than a reminder; it's a commitment without strings.
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Infidelity may be no more prevalent among athletes than it once was, but on the bare-all public stage, it is now part of the daily narrative.