The sports infidelity equation

Money, fame, opportunity and scrutiny still testing marriages a year after Tiger scandal

By Elizabeth Merrill and Amy K. NelsonTiger Woods

The woman does not want her name published. She doesn’t want to come across as bitter and sure as heck doesn’t want to drag her five children through the muck again. She was once a dreamer — believed that love trumped all. Her man, you see, she’d known most of her life. They met all the way back in elementary school, before hormones and bonus checks, when she was still a tomboy. When they got married, the people of their hometown of Seaford, Del., oozed glee and envy. They called them a super couple. Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

“And it wasn’t my dream of living in the big house,” she says. “My dream was just like any other woman who walks down the aisle with her husband. My dream was to live forever with this man, to be able to grow old with this guy and be with our grandkids.

“Yes, we had the fancy cars. But that was just extra …”Mark J. Rebilas

She occasionally stops to take a breath. These things used to be private. Not anymore.

It’s been a year since Tiger Woods smashed his SUV and opened a treasure trove of scandal. These days, the headlines are seemingly full of stories of sports-related marriage infidelity — NBA star Tony Parker among the latest. The why is simple. Money plus fame plus opportunity can equal infidelity. But it also leads to harsher questions when the scandals become so public. How could the wives not know? Why do they stay? How could the cheaters be so reckless?

The answers, the woman says, are complex.

She changes her mind.

Go ahead, she says, use her name.

Tisha DeShields wants you to know. How she laid in bed with a Bible in her lap at night, begging for the strength to sleep, praying she wouldn’t snap. How a seemingly intelligent woman could turn a blind eye toward her husband’s cheating, even when all the signs were smacking her in the face.

“You want to believe,” says Tisha DeShields, whose ex-husband, Delino DeShields, played major league baseball for 13 seasons. “This is a man that you love. Why would you not want to believe him?

“It’s kind of like surviving. We’ll put up our own defense mechanisms to protect our heart. We don’t want to deal with it; we don’t want to admit that our marriage is failing. We believe in the fairy tale; we believe in the knight in shining armour who comes and rescues you and you live happily ever after. I hate to tell people, but that’s bulls—.”

Pervasive culture of infidelity

The concept of infidelity in sports isn’t exactly new but is seemingly ever-present now with the help of technology, TMZ, message boards and other instant media. Stories about Parker’s divorce, Brett Favre’s alleged racy text messages and Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s sex-extortion case are just a click, tweet and moment away.

Two stories in 2009 shook the landscape more than any other athlete-infidelity tales. In the early morning hours of July 4, Tennessee football hero Steve McNair was shot to death by his mistress, Sahel Kazemi, a 20-year-old waitress. Roughly five months later, after Thanksgiving, Woods crashed his car into a fire hydrant and a tree, leading to revelation after revelation that he’d cheated on his wife, Elin Nordegren, multiple times.

After months of nonstop Tiger coverage, one would think the average athlete might learn his lesson and see Tiger as a wake-up call. But in various interviews with athletes, spouses, girlfriends and people who work closely with the professional leagues, most agreed it hasn’t prompted many lifestyle changes.

“I don’t think athletes learn by osmosis,” says Randy Kessler, a high-profile family law attorney who represents athletes, celebrities and spouses. “They’re human like all of us.”

Kessler, based in Atlanta, says the culture of adultery is so pervasive that he stresses to his clients that they become educated, proactive and realistic. He recently suggested to one of his NBA clients that he include a clause in his prenuptial agreement that states if his wife files for divorce because he cheated, he won’t be penalized financially.

He told the NBA player it was likely he’d cheat on his wife and it was likely he’d be caught.

“I thought he was going to hit me,” Kessler says. “I thought he was going to be mad. You know what? He said, ‘I want one of those; I want a bad-boy provision.’ He already knew what it was.”

Kessler says about half of his office’s 500 active cases involve adultery.

None of this surprises Steven Ortiz, an associate professor of sociology at Oregon State who has spent nearly 20 years studying the wives of professional athletes and what he calls “husband-oriented” sports marriages. In one study, Ortiz interviewed 47 wives married to men in the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL.

He chalks up the pattern of behavior to a patriarchal society and what he calls “spoiled-athlete syndrome.” Since childhood, he says, athletes are enabled because of their obvious talent. And in the same way the culture of celebrity is celebrated, athletic heroes are worshipped.

Ortiz says he observed three ways in which the issue of infidelity is handled in these marriages: one, with humor, and two, avoidance of the subject. The third, he says, typically occurs when the wife searches for evidence in laundry, e-mail messages or phone calls.

“A major stressor is the fear of infidelity,” Ortiz says. “[The wives] have no control over the situation.”

Ignoring clues before being blindsided

There was a time when Tisha DeShields felt she had total control. She was 19, in love and in college. A track star in high school, she gave up an invitation to the U.S. Olympic trials to start a family at 21. She didn’t see it as a sacrifice. “I knew I was supposed to be a mom,” she says.

So off they went in those first couple of years, to Montreal, where Delino was playing for the Expos, to the road, where she hung with a group of wives in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and other MLB stops.

“I knew I couldn’t travel on all the trips,” Tisha says. “Some wives did that, went on literally every road trip. And they had reasons for that. They probably didn’t trust their husbands.”

But Tisha did. She was with him before he reached the big leagues, before the groupies and all the trappings of wealth and fame. She never even thought about the possibility that he would cave, at least not at first. Oh, there were some red flags. Like the women’s names who would pop up on the caller ID. But she says Delino, who did not respond to messages for comment in this article, could always explain them. It was his seamstress, he’d tell her. It was nothing.

Delino played for five teams in his career, and eventually, as the family grew, the traveling stopped and Tisha established roots and a home in Atlanta. The distance built up walls and avenues for excuses, she says.

If chunks of money were missing from the checking account, she says, it was quickly justified as repairs to a faraway house in Los Angeles, not money given to a mistress. From 2,000 miles away, the stories were easier to believe.

Then one day in late 2003, a woman called their home in Atlanta. She told Tisha she’d been having an affair with Delino for seven years. She said she was calling because Delino was now cheating on her.

The details were devastating and were laid out in painstaking clarity. The woman described how hotel rooms and other arrangements were paid for in cash and made by Delino’s assistant. The same assistant who was a family friend and helped Tisha when her husband was on the road.

“You talk about depression,” Tisha says. “My world was just … I was like out of it for a couple of years. It’s a complete blur. I was depressed. I was so detached I couldn’t feed my kids. Fortunately, my two older kids were old enough to cook hot dogs and baked beans for the younger kids. I’d pick them up from school, and it was like I was on autopilot. We would just ride around the city, and they’d say, ‘Mom, what are we going to eat?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know. I’ll know when I stop.'”

It might sound strange, but Tisha still loves her ex-husband. They eat breakfast together sometimes, which Tisha considers progress. They’re civil now. She started her own business, Original Belly Works, and is raising her family in Atlanta. Their oldest son, Delino DeShields Jr., was selected with the eighth overall pick by the Houston Astros in the MLB draft earlier this year.

Sometimes Tisha wonders whether Delino and other athletes cheat because they don’t have a male role model to follow, don’t have an example of married parents who stay together for 40 years. But she decided years ago that her kids needed to know that infidelity isn’t acceptable.

“It’s like an addiction,” she says. “I could not allow my kids to be exposed to that. I had to amputate him. And it was painful. He was my right hand in a sense, and I had to amputate my right hand.

“But I’m OK. I eventually had to learn to use my left hand.”

Enablers even include other wives

There are unspoken codes in the big leagues. On football Sundays, some NFL players are known to dole out their tickets to two different mates in separate parts of the stadium — the wives’ section and the girlfriends’ section. Their paths are never supposed to cross. The lifestyle, in many locker rooms, is accepted.

Even the women who marry pro athletes often quickly learn the codes and unwritten rules of being an athlete’s wife.

Never is that more pronounced than when wives travel on the road. They know their husbands’ careers and earnings are foremost, so even if a wife sees a married teammate with another woman, she is expected to remain silent and keep that information to herself — even if she is close to that teammate’s wife. To do otherwise would break the code and could seriously harm the team, a sin that could disrupt the husband’s career.

Donna Candiotti, ex-wife of former major leaguer Tom Candiotti, used to travel with Tom on the road and says it was clear they had to avoid the team hotel bar and other places Tom knew his married teammates might be with other women. Donna knew, even if some of the wives were good friends, she must not tell them.

“I had no idea at first,” says Donna, now a real estate agent in the Phoenix area. “Not until your husband starts telling you what you see you can’t repeat. Guys protect each other.”

Donna was Tom’s second wife; they married when she was 20 years old and he was at the height of his profession and in Cleveland. Donna entered her own hierarchal world once she married Tom; a clear power structure existed among the other players’ wives. Some were high school sweethearts and married before their husbands were famous. Others, like Donna, married after their husbands were famous. Donna felt the wrath of some first wives, because she was their nightmare — the younger replacement who came along after he became famous.

“It was very hard,” Donna says. “The good thing for us is we got traded about three months later and we got a fresh start.”

Donna and Tom divorced after his career ended. She says almost all of the couples from Tom’s playing days are divorced.

“All athletes cheat,” Donna says. “I think it’s because of the power trip and the lifestyle that is rock star status.”

Not all athletes cheat, of course. Not even close.

Some pledge not to get married while they are playing simply because of the temptations, and because they have seen how marriages and infidelity can complicate careers.

“A lot of coaches and players have a lot of distractions at home, and it will cause them not to play well,” says Bryant McKinnie, an unmarried left tackle for the Minnesota Vikings. “At the rookie symposium, we learned that 75 percent of NFL marriages end with divorce within two to three years after retirement. And that’s just something that’s always been on my mind.”

McKinnie has seen infidelity allegations this year involving teammate Favre, but when asked about that would only say: “None of us know what took place so we just support him.”

‘You know what you marry when you marry’

Toni Blackshear doesn’t date athletes anymore. She knows she’s going to come across as a groupie. She is 41 now and doesn’t really care. She has a 16-year-old daughter with former NFL player Chuck Smith, whom she dated when both were single. She’s also had relationships with a handful of NBA and NFL players who generally had one common denominator: They couldn’t stay faithful.

She says she’s never chased a married athlete — she jokes that she’s too arrogant for that — but somehow, defensive linemen are always attracted to her because she’s 5-foot-4 and curvaceous. Blackshear says it’s not tough to figure out why athletes are getting caught cheating more these days.

“If you match with a woman who has nothing to lose, I guarantee your business is going to be put out there,” Blackshear says. “It’s financially driven. These gentlemen are not picking and choosing. These women are chasing them. I mean, literally chasing them, throwing themselves at them and begging to be the bait.

“Look at the type of women that these athletes are having affairs with. They’re not having a lot of affairs with doctors and lawyers. They’re having affairs with the nannies and babysitters and waitresses. They don’t want the smart woman. They don’t want the woman with ethics. They want something they can tell what to do, when to do, how to do it and someone who will totally rely on them.”

Technology isn’t helping, either, she says. She has friends who are NFL players. She knows a few stories. There’s the one about the guy who bought his wife a BMW, then borrowed the car and set the GPS to his girlfriend’s house. The wife got in the car the next day, followed the directions to the address and found her husband with his mistress.

“Technology is, for lack of better words, messing up the players’ game,” Blackshear says. “You cannot miss a beat; you have to be on top of it 100 percent of the time. Once you tell that first lie, you have to keep lying.”

But it works both ways. Cell phones can cover up a lie, she says. Some NFL players keep a couple of them — one that the wife sees and one that is stuffed under a car seat or in a gym bag. That phone, which usually is a prepaid one, is for the girlfriends.

John Nazarian, a former police officer, has been a private investigator for 20 years. He says that on average, he has about a half-dozen pro athletes a year as clients. Usually, it’s because they were involved in extramarital affairs and the mistress is seeking money for her silence. He says he recently had an athlete have GPS devices put on his wife’s car, not because he was worried about his wife’s infidelity, but because he wanted to make sure that when he was with a mistress, his wife was nowhere near.

“He’d go online and see where she’s at,” Nazarian says.

Woods’ indiscretions were exposed through text messages, according to published reports. And alleged text messages prompted the Jenn Sterger controversy with Favre.

But is it a wife’s job to constantly play detective? Brenda Bridges says she can’t. She’s the wife of Jeremy Bridges, an offensive lineman for the Arizona Cardinals. She’s a career woman with kids and a breakneck schedule.

Brenda knows all the athletes’ wives lingo. She says Parker’s possible involvement with a former teammate’s wife is known among players as “trading up.” She seems unfazed and unsurprised by all of it.

“It’s just that life,” she says.

Brenda says the stories don’t prompt conversations with Jeremy and they don’t cause her to worry. She says their relationship is based on full disclosure. If Jeremy goes out on the town with the boys on a road trip, even if it’s to a strip club, he tells her about it.

She says Jeremy was her best friend before they were married and they’ve stayed that way through open lines of communication.

“I just don’t have time to be sitting at home, looking through his phone or checking e-mails,” she says. “I think you know what you marry when you marry.

“The Bible says don’t trust in man, trust in God. I don’t trust my husband; I trust his faith in God. And with that, I walk forward. I don’t worry about what my husband’s gonna do. If he’s gonna cheat, he would cheat whether he was an athlete or not an athlete. At the end of the day, athlete or not, he’s a man. And if that man is going to cheat, he’s going to cheat. And I don’t have one who does. Knock on wood.”