Joan Smith: Why do WAGs stay with men who play away?

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So Tiger Woods, multi-millionaire golfer and recovering sex addict, is back on the market. His marriage to Elin Nordegren was dissolved by a court in Florida last week at a reputed cost of $100m (£65m), nine months after a late-night encounter between his SUV, a fire hydrant and a tree. I suppose this is good news of a sort – good for Ms Nordegren, at any rate, judging by the dignified interview she gave after the hearing – although it will doubtless stir the ambitions of those sadly deluded women who aspire to affairs with international sportsmen.

Ms Nordegren said she hasn't watched golf since her marriage collapsed, and I would have thought that the prospect of having to simulate interest in the game would be a disincentive to any woman contemplating a relationship with the sports star. Clearly, though, fame trumps the tedium of having to talk about a nine-iron or whatever it's called; the incident with the fire hydrant triggered revelations about Woods and a string of affairs, leading to treatment for "sex addiction". Golf and sex addiction are not as unlikely a combination as they might seem – ladies and gentlemen, I give you celebrity golfer Bill Clinton – even if the single-minded concentration required to steer a small ball into a hole hardly suggests a human being with a rich imagination.

The way many successful sportsmen treat women – I'm thinking of Premier League footballers as well as golfers and tennis players – is a scandal. There is a striking contrast between the wife looking after the children at home and the "other woman" who works in an industry designed to service men – in Woods's case, the list included a cocktail waitress and a porn star. Women are set against women, so that the wives and girlfriends of famous footballers are said to be constantly on the lookout for approaches from rivals. Hillary Clinton famously said she knew that Bill would be a hard dog to keep on the porch, and it's almost as if the partners of successful sportsmen accept a responsibility to defend their position against other contenders.

Before this year's World Cup, allegations about the private life of the Chelsea player John Terry cost him the England captaincy, and scarcely a week passes without a newspaper reporting that an unnamed footballer has applied for an injunction to prevent publication of lurid sexual allegations. In a development that revealed a jaw-dropping blindness to the misogyny that disfigures the professional game, Terry was replaced as England captain by Rio Ferdinand, a Manchester United player dogged by allegations about his appearance in a sexually explicit video tape.

Sportsmen are often from a working-class background, and they tend to follow a script that has been out of date among the middle classes for decades. They get engaged just as their careers are taking off, often to a "childhood sweetheart", and rush into marriage. They find they can make fortunes on top of their inflated salaries by selling the rights to these events to celebrity magazines, presenting themselves as devoted family men. When temptation strikes after an away match or during a tournament, they're too self-indulgent and infantile to resist. The result, as Woods and others have discovered, is a messy sequence of rows, injunctions, internet rumours and ignominy.

"I've been through hell," Ms Nordegren said last week. Her ex-husband is well on the way to reviving his career, but the big question is: when are professional sportsmen going to start behaving like grown-ups?