When you watch college football today there is one thing for sure, women will take up space in the spectacle of it in very limited ways. Most, if not all, of the women you will see will be cheerleaders or in beer commercials. There may be a few women reporters on the sidelines–there is only one who ever does play by play (ever)—a tepid attempt the networks are making to have some women around who are not simply “eye candy,” as I heard one sports radio host describe women at football games. If there is one place that football suffers from arrested development, it is around issues of gender. With all the advances that women have made in the larger culture, football is still a man’s game and men wield the power.
Behind the spectacle of big-time football are women like me—coaches’ wives. We fill an almost liminal space in this game. We provide a crucial support system for our husbands and the football programs they work for, but we are largely invisible in that same world and we can exercise what little power we have only in fragmented, behind-the-scenes ways.
I’ve been told countless times that, “it takes a special person to be a coaches’ wife.” What exactly is “special” about coaches’ wives?
Generally the “special” comes from the fact that we wives generally don’t take up much space in the world of football. What makes us special, I guess, is that we can hold down the fort while our husbands work 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. We’re special when we don’t complain, when we don’t need much, when we can handle everything from the plumbing and the yard to the children and packing up the house to move. And we’re special when we can hold our family life together with absentee husbands and still attend all the games properly attired and appropriately supportive of the team.
It’s a curious way to be special, isn’t it? Usually special means exceptional—some one who distinguishes herself in a crowd, some one who stands out for what she is able to do. In the case of coaches’ wives, we are asked to be exceptionally invisible, exceptionally low maintenance, and exceptionally suggestible. Many women who live and function outside of football might look at that description of special and wonder if coaches’ wives are exceptionally crazy!
I can honestly say that I do not often feel special because I am a coach’s wife. Mostly I feel restless and ill at ease in such a male-centric world that does not have room for strong, capable women in the main streams of power. My life in the football world is where I feel most like I am not seen for who I really am.
My role as a coaches’ wife is the only thing in my life where I am encouraged by the culture to aim low—as in, keep a low profile. In everything else I have always been encouraged to be my best. As an athlete I was encouraged to win races and break records. As a student I earned awards for good grades and speaking up in class. As an ordained minister I am encouraged to be prophetic and present in difficult situations. As a consultant I am expected to take leadership and be creative. As a theologian I am encouraged to be bold, take risks, and explore uncharted territory. As a writer I am rewarded for speaking from the heart and for finding ways to express hard truths. And in my marriage I am a trusted mutual partner. But as a coach’s wife in the football world I am told to wait, to be quiet on important issues, to pack up my family and say goodbye to friends and jobs and communities without question, and to be as behind the scenes as possible.
When my husband, John, and I were engaged to be married he was told by a coach at an SEC school that is was “good to go on and get your first marriage out of the way.” When John started his career in the NFL I was in a PhD program in Religious Studies, but I was told not to come back to the wives’ Bible study because I suggested women may want more from their marriages than being submissive help mates. When my husband was with the Oakland Raiders I was not even allowed in his office because of my gender.
It is strange to spend so much time in an atmosphere where excellence is encouraged and to realize over and over again that there is an unspoken addendum to that mandate to be excellent: strive for excellence except if you are a coach’s wife.
I’ve tried different strategies for being a good coach’s wife through the years that had some integrity for me—from learning about over and under defenses and screen passes to barely going to any games. Neither approach was realistic. I don’t have time to become an offensive mastermind in football—I have work outside my life in football. And not going to games, and not engaging with John’s job, didn’t feel good either. Those are some of the few points of contact we have during football season. While distancing myself from the football world may be good for my sense of self, I realized that that same distance was not going to help our marriage survive this very stressful life that we lead. Attending games and participating in the world of football is part of my “stay married to the man I love plan.” Being a good coach’s wife, however, is still a strange vocation that I am not sure I am cut out for at all.
When Chancellor Holden Thorp fired Head Coach Butch Davis just a few days before training camp this season it deeply affected my family. We are living in limbo now even though my husband and many other coaches here have done good, even excellent, work. The Chancellor’s decision took a good (albeit complicated) situation and blew it up in our faces. Much of what was good about the program has now been profoundly diminished in its capacity to have a lasting impact. Firing Coach Davis when Chancellor Thorp did was a destructive interruption of the learning and growing that was happening. So, when the firing occurred I could not continue with the waiting, the quiet, the behind the scenes approach that is the preferred mode of operation for coaches’ wives. So I contacted Chancellor Thorp and asked to see him.
Even though I know I have no official standing in the football situation at UNC, football is something I know about and live with more intimately than the Chancellor. And I also understand some things about academia since I, myself, have a PhD and I am the child of two college professors. I have an informed perspective. I also have the conviction that the football world could benefit if women took up a more space in the conversations that matter. My seeking to talk to Chancellor Thorp is the kind of thing I do in my life as a minister, as a theologian, as a mother, and as a writer. And so this time around I decided I am not going to live by different rules in my life as a coach’s wife.
To his credit, when I contacted the Chancellor, he agreed to sit down with me. My words didn’t mean much in any official way—and they certainly didn’t do anything to change the situation. But maybe no one else had told him the things I told him. Maybe he came to understand some things in a new way. I can’t control what he does with our conversation, but I needed to be seen as a full person by the one with the power to change the course of my life.
I know me going to the Chancellor is frowned upon by many men in the football world. It doesn’t take much for word to get around that people disapprove of the way you do things. It may even be that it somehow hurts John’s reputation that he has a wife who speaks up about things. That prospect, of hurting him professionally, is one of the reasons I have kept quiet so long. But in the bigger picture, he married me for who I am, not for some voiceless cardboard cutout of what a coach’s wife is supposed to be.
I have yet to meet a coach’s wife who is one of those cardboard cutouts. We all have to figure out how to live this life, stay sane, and be able to look at ourselves in the mirror. That’s what makes us special—maybe someday that will be the kind of special we can freely be.
What would happen if big time football opened its eyes to who women really are in our culture? We are strong, capable, creative, relational people who’ve seen and lived lots of things. We make things work, we improvise, we support, we listen, we respond, and we can actually make things happen if you give us some room to be ourselves. What if the audible big time football called around gender was to simply catch up with the times? The offense of the same old plays becomes more and more acute as the world continues to out grow male-dominated power structures. Seeing this arrested development for what it is means football might be due for a serious growth spurt soon!