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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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Neo-feminists often argue mat condemning these relationships is paternalistic and undermines a woman's freedom to make choices. "This is one of those sticky feminist issues," says Kane. "You don't want to disempower women. [A coach dating a player] is not a crime per se. I just think that it's idiotic."

?Is the power dynamic one-sided? True, coaches are authority figures who hold enormous sway over scholarships, playing time and the direction of athletic careers. Coaches often wield a psychological power over their charges as well. "Players look up to their coaches and want to do anything in their power to please them," says Mimi Murray, a professor of sports psychology at Springfield (Mass.) College. "It's really intoxicating."

But coaches can be hurt, too. When a relationship violates policy, the coach may lose his job, while the athlete seldom faces severe discipline—just as a professor might well be fired for having an affair with an undergraduate, yet the student would not be expelled. On the 1996 U.S. volleyball team, for instance, Miller was suspended while Liley merely lost her captaincy. Says middle blocker Paula Weishoff, now an assistant coach at USC, "It was unfair that they didn't receive the same punishment." Joel Fish, director of the Center for Sport Psychology in Philadelphia, has seen cases of relationships between coach and athlete in which the athlete realized she was holding the cards and used that as leverage. In one instance, he says, a female athlete threatened her lover-coach: If you break up with me, I'll take this public. "It's another reason," Fish says, "why these relationships are a bad, bad idea."

?Do coach-athlete romances differ from those between bosses and employees or doctors and patients? In some ways, yes. For one, it's common for athletes and coaches to spend long periods together on the road. According to Kirby's study, 42% of coach-athlete sexual encounters occurred on team trips. Further, in sports, unlike in an office, physical contact—stretching muscles, massaging an injury—is an acceptable, everyday occurrence. Perhaps most important, coaches and athletes have a unique bond shaped by an intense emotional investment, as well as the highs and lows of winning and losing. "You practice with these people, you train with these people, you travel with these people," says Kane. "It's a small community. You have an enormous amount of contact, and it's a charged relationship."

Coach-Athlete couples in individual spoils are burdened with fewer complications than those in team sports. Concerns about abuse of power still apply, but now the athletes are often the employers, free to hire and fire their coaches, so the power dynamic is more ambiguous. Moreover, in the insular world of individual sports, coaches sometimes fill the roles of traveling companion and confidant.

There have been dozens of well-known coach-athlete pairings in individual sports, most notably Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Bob Kersee. In her prime, gold medal sprinter Gwen Torrence was coached by Manley Waller, whom she married in 1990 and divorced almost 10 years later. Although Marion Jones and shot-putter C.J. Hunter have separated—and though his failed drug tests took some luster off her three gold medals at the 2000 Olympics—Jones has often credited Hunter with helping launch her track career. During Jones's days at North Carolina, she began dating Hunter, then an assistant coach on the track and field team. Owing to university rules that forbade coach-athlete romances, Hunter resigned as coach in early 1996, soon before he and Jones were engaged. Hunter then oversaw Jones's training before introducing her to her current coach, Trevor Graham.

Cathy Freeman, the Australian runner who along with Jones was the toast of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, began an affair with her coach and manager, Nick Bideau, when she was 18 and he was 30. When they broke up five years later, soon after Freeman had gotten a silver medal at the Atlanta Games, she nearly quit running. A year later they reunited strictly as coach and athlete, but the arrangement failed miserably. In 1999, when Freeman married Nike representative Sandy Bodecker, Bideau—who by then had fathered a child with Irish runner Sonia O'Sullivan—filed a lawsuit seeking a percentage of Freeman's $2 million in career earnings. ( Freeman countersued, and the case is still pending in Australia.) "Business and personal, they don't work together," Freeman says. "I've learned that."

No sport may have as many coach-athlete pairings as women's tennis. In 2000 Barbara Schett, Sandrine Testud, Dominique Van Roost and at least nine other top 100 players were either dating or married to their coaches. This is hardly surprising, given tennis's aria of emotions and the long blocks of time players and coaches spend together. "Without some personal chemistry, the relationship wouldn't work in the first place," says former player Pam Shriver. "For every one [that becomes a romance], I'll bet there are sexual feelings in 99 percent of the other player-coach relationships that never surface."

A compelling case is that of 22-year-old American Meghann Shaughnessy, a rising star on the WTA tour. When Shaughnessy was 14, she moved from Virginia Beach, where she lived with her family, to Phoenix to train with Rafael Font de Mora, then 25, who was running a well-regarded academy. Font de Mora was so impressed with Shaughnessy's potential that he asked her parents to sign a contract whereby he would waive his $25,000 annual fee in exchange for a percentage of Meghann's future earnings as a pro. A fiercely driven athlete known to go on long runs immediately after her matches, Shaughnessy grew fond of Font de Mora's regimented training program. Within a year she dropped out of high school and, along with several other promising players, moved into Font de Mora's house. That arrangement raised eyebrows in tennis circles and caused Shaughnessy to become estranged from her parents, Bill and Joy. Sources close to the family said mat the elder Shaughnessys twice tried to remove Meghann from Font de Mora's program, but she refused to leave.

Despite Shaughnessy's potential, the U.S. Tennis Association declined to provide her with the funding it traditionally gives to promising juniors. According to a source close to the USTA, suspicions that Shaughnessy was involved in an "inappropriate" relationship with Font de Mora was a factor in the decision, as were the concerns of Bill and Joy. "We have to align ourselves with the interests of me parents," says Lynne Rolley, director of player development for the USTA. Font de Mora contends the reason Shaughnessy never received the support of USTA officials was that "she never kissed their ass." He also says that his relationship with her was strictly professional until she turned 18, at which time he says they began an amorous relationship mat led to their engagement a year later.

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