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Sports Wives No Longer in Shadows

April 30, 2006|From the Associated Press

ATLANTA — Gena James-Pitts resented the stereotype. No, she doesn't have a carefree life just because she married a pro football player.

"I'm not a wife who only shops, watches TV and waits for my husband to come home," she said. "I'm more than that."

James-Pitts is trying to change the perception through the Professional Sports Wives Assn., which she formed to give current and former wives of pro athletes, coaches and sports executives a place to discuss their concerns.

More than just a gossip group, the association provides marital guidance, financial planning, career goals and household management. Already, about 200 wives have signed up.

James-Pitts, wife of former NFL defensive lineman Mike Pitts, says those like her deserve more recognition for their behind-the-scenes efforts.

"We're like single parents," she said. "While our husbands are gone nearly 10 months in a year, we run the household and are financial planners. Some people think we have maids, but not all of us do. These wives are really hard workers."

Typically, pro sports wives are seen as silent partners who spend their husband's money, but they are often the backbone of the family.

"They hold it down for us," said Mike Pitts, who played 12 years in the NFL for the Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots.

The group is seeking members from among roughly 500,000 pro sports wives whose husbands are tied to 17 professional and minor leagues, encompassing popular sports such as football, basketball, baseball and auto racing but also reaching out to those involved in sports such as rodeo to fishing.

In NASCAR, wives and girlfriends usually are more involved with their partner's career compared with other sports leagues. They are allowed in the pits and recognized as part of the team, while other sports have stronger restrictions on spouses.

That can lead to problems. A few weeks ago, Greg Biffle's girlfriend angrily confronted Kurt Busch's fiancee in the pits after a wreck took out both drivers during a Nextel Cup race in Texas.

Joe Auer, a former pro football player and owner of Competitive Edge Motorsports, says those sorts of issues can be avoided in the future as wives build a better rapport through the association.

"Take that strong group and apply them with others who they can relate to from other sports," Auer said. "Gena's new group will grow quickly and be helpful for them and us."

The association puts out a quarterly magazine, which is mailed to members, team owners and executives, league officials, coaches and athletes.

Among those profiled in a recent issue: Alison Mahay, the wife of Texas Ranger reliever Ron Mahay, who has gone into business with three other major league wives to open a boutique shop of children's athletic apparel.

"It will show all the wives that they're not alone," Mahay said. "Having a magazine that shows our lifestyle gives a sense of family. This makes everyone look out for each other."

NFL wives Duwan Williams and Shelley Barrow recently became members.

"We really have our own society, since our husbands are athletes," said Barrow, wife of Dallas Cowboys linebacker Michael Barrow. "Finally, women can say to themselves, 'I'm not in this by myself.' "

Williams is married to former defensive back Willie Williams, who played 11 seasons. She believes her own experiences can help others.

"For a pro sports wife, there are lots of ups and downs," Williams said. "I want to be a support system, because I need it as well. "

Angela Wilder knows that all too well. She went through a divorce from former Laker star James Worthy after he was arrested and charged with solicitation for prostitution.

Wilder knew being married to Worthy, an All-Star forward who played for the Lakers during the "Showtime" era of the 1980s, would be a challenge. But she never expected to be put through such an embarrassing situation.

"I've been through the struggle and lived through it," she said. "Now, I can help other women because not only can I talk the talk, but I can walk the walk."

Since the breakup, Wilder has published a book, "Power Mate Syndrome: Reclaiming Your Strength and Purpose When Your Partner is the Star of the Relationship." She is also a registered marriage and family therapy counselor.

"When wives feel isolated from everyone, most think they're the only ones going through their experience," Wilder said. "It's not like that. There's a sorority of women in that position.... Myself and the association can provide support."

A survey conducted by the group found that nearly four out of five pro athletes are divorced, and they average $250,000 in debt after they retire.

After watching a TV documentary about a number of women trading sexual favors for money or other rewards with some pro athletes, James-Pitts wanted to separate the groupies from those who truly care about their men.

After 21 years of marriage, James-Pitts has gone through plenty of tough times. She hopes to use some of her experiences to create a better image for sports wives.

"It was by the grace of God that me and my husband made it through," James-Pitts said. "Now, we're giving back."

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