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Passion Plays
Grant Wahl
September 10, 2001
A growing number of coach are falling in love with—and sometimes marrying—athletes they train. Some of these relationships succeed. Others disrupt careers or leave teammates stumbling over hidden obstacles
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September 10, 2001

Passion Plays

A growing number of coach are falling in love with—and sometimes marrying—athletes they train. Some of these relationships succeed. Others disrupt careers or leave teammates stumbling over hidden obstacles

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In the days before the 1996 Olympics, the U.S. women's volleyball team was on the edge of disintegration. The gold medal that some observers had predicted the Americans would win had become an afterthought to the players. In their rooms at the Olympic Village, they pecked on their laptops late into the night, exchanging barbed e-mails like tracer fire. Others engaged in face-to-face debates that sometimes ended in tears. The team even called on its sports psychologist in an effort to restore unity on the eve of the biggest competition of the players' careers. The reason for this ill-timed internal strife: a love affair between a coach and a player.

For two months before the team departed from its San Diego training camp for the Games in Atlanta, assistant coach Kent Miller and team captain Tammy Liley had discreetly conducted a romance. Although the two were in unmistakable violation of a USA Volleyball rule prohibiting player-coach affairs, the seriousness of their infraction seemed debatable. She was 29, he was 34, and they had known each other for years. In fact, two team members say, in the beginning the romance may have fostered team chemistry, as Liley confided in some of her teammates and depended on their loyalty to conceal the romance from head coach Terry Liskevych.

Five months before the Olympics, Liley broke off the relationship, and, according to several team sources, Miller became so distraught that he could no longer perform his job effectively. Eventually several players and another assistant coach told Liskevych what had been going on between Liley and Miller. Liskevych recalls that some players threatened to quit the team unless he enforced the federation's rule and took action against Liley and Miller. If he were to let such a flagrant violation go unpunished, how, the players wondered, could he credibly discipline one of them for arriving late to practice or missing a curfew? Further, because Liskevych leaned on Miller for his judgment when choosing a lineup and making substitutions, players say they questioned whether the love affair and its aftermath had influenced decisions about playing time. "I was wondering if [Tammy] slept with [ Kent] to keep her stalling position," says middle blocker Elaina Oden.

Other players urged Liskevych to ignore the situation lest it upset the team so close to the Olympics. Even his advisers in USA Volleyball were divided. "It was the horns of a dilemma," Liskevych says.

The week before the team left for Atlanta, in what he calls "the toughest decision I ever had to make," Liskevych stripped Liley of her captaincy and suspended Miller for the Games—in effect, terminated his job—for violating the rule. "Medal be damned, what's right in the context?" Liskevych says. "What decision will let me look in the mirror and say, I did the right thing? I think I made the right decision, no question about that."

Some players were angry with Liskevych for taking such a hard-line stance with the Games looming. "I was, like, 'You're firing our assistant and getting rid of our captain this close to the Olympics—you've got to be high,' " says outside hitter Caren Kemner, one of the top American players of all time. "He could have defused the situation more calmly and kept the players more focused on what we were doing. This also gave him an out: If the team screwed up, it wasn't his fault. It had to be Tammy and Kent's."

Others blamed Miller for, as one player puts it, "not holding it together after the relationship ended." Still others were furious with Liley (who says she "took responsibility" and "apologized for the interruption") for what they regarded as putting her interests before the good of the team. "I know a lot of coaches who dated and married ex-players, but the key word is ex," says Oden. "The very foundation of the team was shattered when we needed it to be strong."

The circumstances that threw the U.S. Olympic volleyball team into turmoil are hardly unique. In fact, romantic relationships between coaches and athletes are an increasingly serious issue in women's sports. While no comprehensive research has been done in the U.S. or worldwide, University of Winnipeg professor (and former Canadian Olympic rower) Sandra Kirby released a study before the Atlanta Games revealing that 21.8% of the 266 Canadian elite athletes she surveyed (80% of whom were female) said they had engaged in sexual intercourse with a coach or sports authority figure. "The majority of those subjected to sex with authority figures are female," Kirby writes in her 2000 book The Dome of Silence: Sexual Harassment and Abuse in Sport. "The majority of the authority figures having sex with their athletes are male."

The phenomenon has involved athletes in a wide range of sports at the college, pro and Olympic levels, and has become increasingly visible with the growth of women's athletics. Since the enactment of Tide IX in 1972, participation in women's sports in the U.S. has increased tenfold, from 300,000 to more than three million. As women's sports have gone big time, the number of males coaching females has risen dramatically. Between 1972 and 2000, the proportion of women's collegiate teams coached by females dropped from 90% to 45.6%. In the past two years 80% of the head-coaching vacancies in women's college sports have been filled by men. (In contrast, almost no women are working as head or assistant coaches of men's college, pro or Olympic teams.)

Not that player-coach relationships are limited to team sports. Track stars Cathy Freeman, Marion Jones and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, among others, have married or dated their coaches, as have athletes from pro sports as diverse as boxing ( Christy Martin) and tennis (at least a dozen of the top 100 women players in 2000 were romantically linked to their coaches).

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