CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The chatter runs the gamut from the practical to the profound, from sharing recipes and finding a home in a new city to dealing with a husband’s growing dementia and applying for medical benefits. Touchy topics like alcoholism, depression and spousal abuse come up, too, mixed in with ideas on what to do with spare time.
Part confessional, part help line, part bonding session, the invitation-only Facebook discussion group for the wives and partners of current and retired National Football League players has become the go-to place to air the complexities, anxieties and consequences of living with an N.F.L. athlete, past and present.
The page was started last spring by Tara Nesbit, the wife of Jamar Nesbit, a former New Orleans Saints offensive lineman. It includes more than 2,000 women who, as science and medicine unlock more about the health consequences of the game, are increasingly sharing their anguish about injuries and the long-term effects of concussions, a contentious issue rocking the sport.
Credit: Logan R. Cyrus for The New York Times
“It’s scary to think about the future and the ‘what ifs,’” one wife of a current player wrote. But “if it’s what he loves, I have to support it.”
Credit: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Another woman, coping with a former player enduring chronic pain, passed along advice and a wrenching update.
“After about a month of being on the oil, he was able to stop taking his antidepressant and anxiety medications,” she wrote about a product her husband had begun using. “Things that used to set him off no longer seem to bother or irritate him.”
Many of the posts morph into virtual group hugs, as women who have grappled with the same issues offer support, advice and encouragement or, as one woman put it, a soft place to land.
“They are very open about their husbands and the issues that can be perceived as positive or negative,” Tara Nesbit said, sitting at her dining room table surrounded by a laptop and files. “When someone says something, there are 10 women who jump on and say, ‘My husband is like that, too.’”
Nesbit, who is helped by Jane Arnett, another former player’s wife, tries to keep the site as private as possible, guarding against voyeurs. Though Nesbit provided a variety of screen grabs of discussions and posts, with the names of the writers removed, she declined to allow The New York Times full access. Quotations from posts were used only with the writer’s permission.
She allowed The Times this exclusive glimpse to highlight what many spouses, so often seen but not heard, talk about and experience behind the scenes of the country’s most successful, sometimes most polemical, sports league.
Nesbit’s background helped win the women’s trust. Her husband played in three cities and was for a time on a series of one-year contracts, so she understands how precarious an N.F.L. career can be. She spends hours a day making sure the page is up-to-date and the tone is civil.
While many women ask for advice on where to find good doctors and how to navigate paperwork to secure health benefits, others delve deeper. Some women ask if football is worth the money and fame, and express worry that the game will wreak havoc on their husbands’ brains.
Alison Owens has shared her thoughts on these tough questions. Her husband, Terry, who played 10 seasons with the San Diego Chargers in the 1960s and 1970s, died in 2012 and was later found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., the degenerative brain disease that has been linked to repeated hits to the head. Owens took care of her husband during his last years, as his dementia advanced, but she did so with no advice from other wives.
Now, on the Facebook page, she helps other wives sidestep some of the mistakes she made, providing tips on everything from selecting the right bed for a husband who is losing his mobility to ensuring that you have a valid power of attorney.
“I’m giving advice because I’ve been through it and no one was there for me,” she said in a phone interview. “I definitely wish I would have had something similar at the time. I just muddled through it.”
Jordan Nelson, whose husband, Corey, is a linebacker for the Denver Broncos, said in another phone interview that conversations on the Facebook page about topics like the recent report on C.T.E. by doctors at Boston University had opened her eyes to the chance that her husband may suffer later in life.
“When the study came out, it really scared me,” Nelson said. “Should I encourage him to walk away? When is the money enough? That’s the conversation we’re having.”
Still, the page is generally not a place to complain about the N.F.L.; the vibe is more about bringing people together. After all, many of the women have the league to thank for their husband’s professional and financial success, and the wives of current players — about 30 percent of the women on the page — tend to be more upbeat about the league.
But with 10 to 15 active posts a day, plus comments, the challenges the families of players face seep in as they cope with the little-seen costs of being in “the N.F.L. family.” This is especially true once players leave a league where the average career lasts only three or so seasons, and retirement often comes swiftly because of injury.
The women’s hunger for information is a sign of their husbands’ uncertain journey into retirement, when players are left to deal with injuries, depression and a lack of structure.
The conversations may not be easy, but many women on the page are reassured when they find out they are not alone.
“I didn’t even know what was wrong with my husband, and I didn’t know any wives,” said Janet McCoy, whose husband, Mike, played eight seasonswith the Green Bay Packers and died in February 2016 after battling dementia. “What is fantastic about this site is that now I have been able to help other wives and validate what they were going through.”
Lately, one of the most frequent topics is the N.F.L. settlement with players who sued the league for concealing the dangers of concussions. Players started registering in February for the settlement, which will pay players with severe cognitive and neurological problems up to $5 million each, and the pace of questions about the deal has quickened with the approach of the registration deadline on Monday.
More than 18,000 of the estimated 21,000 retired N.F.L. players or their representatives have registered, and tens of millions of dollars have been awarded to players so far. Nesbit has posted many notices encouraging women to sign up their husbands, and given the page’s wide access, she may have ultimately prompted hundreds of players to register.
The wives and partners, then, are critical in these cases because they can help players overcome their fears. More broadly, they are a crucial link to players who sometimes vanish as they move to new cities, get busy with their families and start new careers.
“I said if we get the information to the wives, we can get to the husbands,” Nesbit said, as her cellphone pinged with alerts. “It was long, long overdue.”
Source: NY Times/ KEN BELSON
Photo Credit: Canadian Underwriter