Stories from Women Who Marry Pro Athletes

Steven M. Ortiz, a Sociology professor at Oregon State University, has published a new book titled The Sport Marriage: Women Who Make It Work, which is based on thirty years of study and interviews about life as the wife of a professional athlete.   

The book details painful realities in these relationships, growing out of the nature of marriage, the power imbalance caused by having a spouse whose income is so large and whose schedule is complicated and inflexible, and the nature of the subculture they are living in – extremely male-oriented and encouraging of aggression.  

A woman who marries a professional athlete will inevitably encounter sexism on a scale not seen in most modern workplaces, and will have to be aware of the effects this may have on her marriage: domestic violence, infidelity and plain disrespect are only the most obvious.  

The Sport Marriage: Women Who Make It Work was released this month through University of Illinois Press. It’s based on studies Ortiz conducted in 1989-1990 and 2015-2016, interviewing dozens of women married to men who played professional baseball, basketball, football, and hockey, as well as husbands, an ex-wife, and members of management.  He said for simplicity’s sake, he chose not to include same-sex partners or women who are professional athletes.   

It was challenging to find women to interview because they are usually shielded from outsiders by both their husbands and team management, both of whom want to “manage” the public appearance of players’ wives.  

Asked how strong an effect this masculine culture had on sport wives, Ortiz said, “This book is about the subordination of women and gender inequality.” He observed that the situation of sport wives changed very little over the seventeen years his study covered, because the culture was largely unchanged.  

Ortiz studied sport wives because he thought they would be a good example of life in a “career-oriented marriage, where one partner – in this case the husband – has a demanding and high-paying job, and often works in a very specific environment. A similar pattern can be found among men in business, law enforcement, the military, medicine, and politics.   

Whether a woman in such a marriage has a job of her own or not, she will be expected to arrange her life to accommodate his work and to take care of all domestic matters (housework, child care, social activities), so that he can devote most of his energy and attention to his work.   

“The voices of these women have historically been stifled and their marriages are shockingly misunderstood,” Ortiz said. “There isn’t the degree of reciprocity that most of us might assume is there. She’s doing all of the giving, and he’s doing all of the taking.”  

Many of these women married their husbands before they turned professional, and were not prepared for how large a place their husband’s work would take in their lives. Women interviewed said often that a woman considering marriage to a professional athlete should learn as much as possible about his career aspirations and his family history before marriage – good advice for anyone considering marriage.  

The Sport Marriage was written with both academic readers and the general public in mind. Ortiz expects it might be used in college courses – such as social psychology, sociological theory, family, gender, and sports as well as by people interested in sports or in gender issues.  

John M. Burt