The XX Factor

Life as an NFL Wife: “He’s the Star. Keep Him Happy.”

Tracy Treu’s husband, Adam, when he played for the Oakland Raiders.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Tracy Treu, a former Mother Jones employee who is married to former Oakland Raiders center Adam Treu, sat down with Ian Gordon at Mother Jones and explained what life is like when you’re the wife of an NFL player. The headline, “Support the Player and Be Quiet,” really says it all, but Treu digs into some of the details about how much wives are expected to build their entire lives around their athlete husbands. For instance:

The NFL is a culture that values secrecy. When you’re with an NFL team, the message to you is clear: Don’t fuck anything up for your partner, and don’t fuck anything up for the team. Don’t be controversial. Don’t talk to the media. Stay out of the way. Support the player and be quiet.

While the team doesn’t officially say this to wives, Treu explains, veteran wives will absolutely sit down with rookie wives and lay out how much their lives are going to be about the team winning games, and that everything else is secondary. Treu worked during her stint as an NFL wife, but, “A lot of these wives don’t work. They can’t.” Part of it is that there’s always a chance of moving, but part of it is, “He wants her home.” Being a player is an all-consuming lifestyle, and having that support system at home is invaluable. But what is asked of women can get ridiculous:

They really don’t want anything to be a distraction from that goal. I remember getting a lot of grief for planning my first pregnancy poorly because I had our daughter during the season. You only have babies in the offseason. There are lots of informal rules like that. 

All of this is newly relevant, of course, in light of the Ray Rice story. Many people have been trying to put the focus on Rice’s wife, Janay Rice, and her choice to stand by her husband. It’s hard enough for domestic violence victims to leave their husbands when they are emotionally and financially dependent on them. But for an NFL wife who is expected to wrap up her entire identity in her husband and his team, and to not screw anything up for either of them, walking away means not just leaving behind the money and the marriage, but also the very source of your identity. Imagine trying to change course and put yourself first after spending years being told to stifle your own concerns and desires for the good of the team. 

While some of this culture is borne out of necessity, a lot of it is also because sports is one of the last bastions of old-fashioned patriarchy, where men get to do what they want and women are expected to just be grateful their husbands get paid so well. Not for all families, of course, but across various sports, the idea is, as Treu puts it, “He’s making great money, so you support him and shut your mouth. You’re put in a subservient position financially. He’s the star. Keep him happy.”

The world of sports also tends to take a wink-and-nod approach to infidelity. Witness, for instance, this video of Jalen Rose telling Bill Simmons and David Jacoby of Grantland about the lives of basketball players. “They understand that their wife may be sitting in this section, so got to get tickets for your girlfriend in a section on the opposite of the arena. These are things that are standard, man.” Chuckles all around. Apparently, pro sports is this fantasy land where men get to be like Don Draper and no one will do anything about it. 

Despite all this, most female partners feel “gratitude and happiness,” Treu says, because “pro football was a dream.”