"Support the Player and Be Quiet": What It's Like to Be an NFL Wife

A former Oakland Raiders spouse on the Rice scandal and the league’s culture of secrecy.

Editor's note: Tracy Treu worked at Mother Jones from 1998 to 2006 and is married to former Oakland Raiders center Adam Treu, who played 10 seasons in the NFL.

I'm so fed up by people blaming Janay Rice. We're asking for incredible bravery, and we're giving little compassion to this woman. Because it's so easy to say: "Well, she's the fool who married him. Why doesn't she just leave?" There are just so many components to it that people aren't aware of.

The NFL is a culture that values secrecy. When you're with an NFL team, the message to you is clear: Don't fuck anything up for your partner, and don't fuck anything up for the team. Don't be controversial. Don't talk to the media. Stay out of the way. Support the player and be quiet.

When you're with an NFL team, the message to you is clear: Don't fuck anything up for your partner, and don't fuck anything up for the team.

I saw this firsthand. The Raiders didn't formally sit us down—they're not structured like that as an organization to sit the wives down and school them, and say, "This is what we ask of you." But it is definitely passed down by the veteran wives in the league. The veteran wives will talk to the rookie wives. So will the administrative or coaching wives. It's made very clear to you, and not in a hateful way, by any means: "Let's work together for this one common goal: to win the Super Bowl." That will mean, for the coaches' families, that you're not going to get fired and you'll get to stay here for another year. And that might mean, for some of the marquee players, that they're going to get a better contract.

They really don't want anything to be a distraction from that goal. I remember getting a lot of grief for planning my first pregnancy poorly because I had our daughter during the season. You only have babies in the offseason. There are lots of informal rules like that. 

And the media is the devil—the enemy. I had my husband come home and tell me, "Don't ever talk to the media." Guys would get teased; they'd rib each other if they were in the news, or if the wife got mentioned. There was a sportswriter for the Oakland Tribune whom I'd sometimes see at games, and Adam would be like, "What'd you say to him? Were you talking to him? Don't talk to him." And that's not just Adam's personal preference; that's what he'd been told. I don't know everything that was said in meetings, but that's how it came down to me: "Did he call you? What did he say to you? What did he ask you? Don't tell him anything."

It's motivated by this you-versus-the-world mentality. You know: People are going to try to take us down. People are going to try to distract us. Do not let anybody distract us from our singular goal. Looking through past notes and playbooks, a lot of coaches use a lot of war analogies and wartime quotes—they liken it to going to war. They use that to build camaraderie, and they want the wives to build camaraderie amongst each other to support the players.

Adam was the kind of player who was just hoping to make the team year to year. So it was like, don't fuck this up for him in any way. "Don't give them any reason to cut you," he'd always say. But my husband was never a marquee player—he was the long snapper. So, you know, he was very anonymous. Ray Rice is in a premier position. He's not a long snapper. He's a running back.

This is what Janay Rice was risking: embarrassing the Ravens, embarrassing her family, screwing his teammates out of their prized running back, losing money, losing security.

And I'm sure that sort of thing was going through Janay's mind: If I tell, and if I take away their best running back, and they lose on Sunday, that's my fault. I did that. I set that ball in motion. This is what she was risking: embarrassing the Ravens, embarrassing her family, screwing his teammates out of their prized running back, losing money, losing security. Janay was under an incredible amount of pressure. She probably thought to be quiet was to make this go away. Because she needs it to go away.

Janay met Ray in high school. They have a daughter together. So we're asking her to walk away from this, and it's like, "How?" This is all she's ever known. A lot of these wives don't work. They can't. They're only living in a place for six months. Maybe the guy is playing on a new team every two or three years. He wants her home. You know, he's not coming home and cooking himself dinner. When Adam played, I don't think any of the wives worked. So what's she going to leave and go do?

To be blunt, the money pads that a little bit. You get this paycheck coming in every week and you suck it up. I worked at Mother Jones when he played, and I needed that totally separate outlet. But many of these women move into town for six months during the season, and they do whatever they need to do to help their spouse win. (Which, you know, you really can't do much. It's not up to you.) Then they go back to wherever they're from for the offseason. Then they repeat.

I don't really think that's changed much over the years. If a player has a partner, that partner needs to not be controversial. I don't know if teams do research on players' partners—I'd assume they do, but I don't know. "Be seen and not heard." That's the assumption. Well, that and, "You're just lucky to be here, so shut up." He's making great money, so you support him and shut your mouth. You're put in a subservient position financially. He's the star. Keep him happy.

Quiet support stops the second you are abused. Speak up. It's not a secret worth keeping.

And, in the end, why not just show up and shut up and be supportive? After all, Adam and I felt damn lucky to be in the NFL. He was a walk-on at Nebraska. Playing pro football was a dream. It made me incredibly happy to watch him play. 

Most of the girlfriends and wives feel the same gratitude and happiness, and I encourage them to be supportive of the team. But that quiet support stops the second you are abused. Speak up. It's not a secret worth keeping.

I wonder now what the Ravens will do for Janay and her daughter. And I wonder, with the league's new, stiffer penalties for domestic violence, how many abused women will stay quiet—because that means the end of a career, the end of the insurance, the end of it all.