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By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

WEDDED TO THE GAME

The Real Lives of NFL Women

By Shannon O'Toole

University of Nebraska. 196 pp. Paperback, $17.95

On Sunday afternoons from August to January -- on Sunday nights, too, and Monday nights -- America hauls out the testosterone. It's the National Football League on parade, and it's strictly a guy thing: immense bodies colliding at warp speed, the game itself eerily patterned after the rhythms of old-fashioned, stylized warfare, the grandstands crowded with wannabes dressed up and painted up in their teams' colors, howling and braying into the autumnal air.

Women? Except for the voluptuous cheerleaders and a few female journalists, they're mainly let in on sufferance. The NFL finally has figured out that they're a significant market for the advertisers who make the league's television broadcasts so profitable and has made a few gestures toward appeasing them, but there is very little evidence that it takes them seriously. To be sure, plenty of women are in the stands, some of whom caparison themselves as flamboyantly as the men do, but they're spectators and nothing more; the game belongs to the guys.

Yet in the inner circle of the game -- the place occupied by the men who play it and the men who coach them -- women in fact play a far more important role. That is the gist of "Wedded to the Game," a book that comes as a real eye-opener. Shannon O'Toole, married to a former player and coach, knows the NFL intimately from the wife's perspective. She also has an MA in sociology, a discipline that does not inspire the most lucid prose (hers is better than average) but does provide methods for calibrating and evaluating social groups.

The women of the NFL -- wives, ex-wives, girlfriends, unmarried partners -- are just that: a group that has certain shared experiences and characteristics. To get a sense of what these are, O'Toole "sent an anonymous survey to over 150 women and got back an amazing 75 responses," from which she "chose 30 women to interview in depth." They ended up divided about 50-50 between African Americans and whites and about 50-50 between those willing to be named and those who preferred anonymity. In age, they range from the twenties to the sixties; "the majority were full-time caregivers to small children" while a minority pursue a broad range of careers. They aren't what you think they are:

"Far from the stereotypical, fluffy Barbie doll image under which NFL wives often suffer, NFL women are sharp, strong-willed, and opinionated -- and not afraid to speak their minds. Rather than being shallow or timid, as they are sometimes portrayed, they are as tough, if not tougher, than the men who play and coach the game. They have to be. Those who aren't don't last in the NFL for long, while those who learn to cope with the NFL's immense difficulties and challenges become stubborn, resilient, wise survivors."

O'Toole doesn't use the phrase "in the NFL" lightly. She argues that these women may not be on the field, but they're as much in the league as are their husbands and boyfriends. Without the support they give and the sacrifices they make, few of their men would be able to give the game the round-the-clock concentration it demands. A few of the women lead lives of celebrity and ease -- the wives of famous, wealthy players and head coaches who've had long, lucrative careers -- but most are like offensive linemen: in the trenches, unknown and unrecognized, taking the pain as well as the pleasure that the game dishes out.

Most pro football players are journeymen. The average career is three years, and that's pulled as high as it is by the minority of players who last eight or 10 -- or more -- and whose names are the ones we know. O'Toole's husband, John Morton, is one of these journeymen. He "spent five years trying to make it into the NFL as a wide receiver"; in 1998 he "got his first job as an offensive assistant coach for the Oakland Raiders" and eventually assumed other positions, but in January 2005 he was let go, and is for the moment, at least, out of the game.

"Wedded to the Game," though, is not a book about John Morton and Shannon O'Toole. Where their experience is illustrative O'Toole mentions it, but there's no breast-beating about unfair treatment or bad breaks or anything else. She's really more interested in what's happened to other players' wives, and some of them prove interesting indeed: Jackie Rice, the wife of All-Everything Jerry Rice, one of the few women in this group who's had intimate knowledge of fame and an accomplished person in her own right; Kim Singletary, a white woman married to Mike Singletary, an African American, whose children, by her own testimony, "have grown up never knowing prejudice"; Pat Kennan, outspoken and smart, married to a former coach, Larry Kennan, who is now executive director of the NFL coaches' association.

These and many more: strong, resourceful, independent women who've done most of life's quotidian business -- rearing the children, paying the bills, dealing with teachers and repairmen -- entirely by themselves. In the off-season they may get a little help, but many testify that readjusting to having their husbands around is just about as difficult as running the house while they're away.

Few of these people are rich. "Many players pass through who are never quite good enough," O'Toole writes, "but the NFL needs cheap bodies who will work hard for a promise, and so they are encouraged to stick it out." The wages paid to those trying out in training camp are minimal, and those paid to players who are put on practice squads during the season aren't much better. In the public's eye, the NFL is Peyton Manning and LaDainian Tomlinson and Ray Lewis and Tom Brady, but the foot soldiers who keep the league on the march are unknown to all except those fans who study the NFL with Talmudic intensity.

Speaking of fans, for most players' wives they're nothing but a pain. Those who know the player or his family, no matter how slight the acquaintance, constantly pester for tickets and then get angry when they're asked to pay for tickets that didn't come free. In the stands, fans are often drunk or abusive or both: "The wife of a player told the story of arriving at a game . . . wearing a T-shirt with her husband's name on it. After her husband drew a penalty for holding, she said three men sitting a couple of rows behind her 'screamed at' and 'humiliated' her. Since then, she hides the fact that she is an NFL woman."

Mostly, though, fans see right through the woman to the player. The same is true of the NFL itself, with the result that "the question that truly challenges these women is how to maintain a sense of self and personal pride when everything they see, hear, and read praises their partners and their NFL jobs and leaves the women's contributions virtually invisible." Kim Singletary says she didn't maintain her sense of self while Mike was playing, but:

"I never had problems being called, 'the wife.' I hear these young girls complain about that, and when they ask me about it, I will say, if you want the honest-to-God truth, it is like trying to turn around the Titanic. You are going to fight yourself. You just need to accept it isn't about you right now. The fans, it will not be about you. The team, it will not be about you. His schedule, it will not be about you. His coaches, it will not be about you."

In other words, it's not an easy life. There's much more about it -- the incredible hours that coaches are expected to work, the pain of being cut or fired, the endless uprooting of children as players and coaches move from team to team, the "anger and resentment" that many women feel -- in this intelligent, thoughtful book. All of which makes it quite remarkable that these women are proud of their husbands, proud that they've made it to the NFL, thrilled when their teams get into the playoffs and ecstatic if they make the Super Bowl. They're fans, too.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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