Look, the shocker is when things go right. The most surprising thing an elite athlete can do these days, apart from the athletic performance itself, is to have a home life that is either so stable as to prompt admiring glances or so boring that no one even notices. Grant Hill comes to mind. Drew Brees comes to mind.
But most of these relationships among the elite -- they aren't normal. Why? Because these people aren't normal.
I'm about to write something that ought to carry a Tiger-specific exemption clause, because any conversation about elite sports stars and marriage is immediately going to be connected back to the Woods-Elin Nordegren divorce. (It makes sense, seeing as how they're in the news. But the connection fails, mostly because Tiger Woods is by now an absolute caricature.) Nevertheless, this is the truth as I've experienced it over more than 20 years of observing, writing about and knowing some of the elite athletes in the world: It remains utterly shocking when one of them has a marriage that works.
That isn't cynicism talking; the numbers make a pretty fair case for themselves, at least so far as they can be ascertained. Although the math can be slippery and most of the statistics have been gleaned by anecdotal means, the divorce rate among all professional athletes is generally estimated at somewhere between 60 percent and 80 percent, according to stories in both the New York Times and Sports Illustrated.
Sixty percent! That is some epic, epic failure.
So while the Woods case is notable for the levels of its depravity, creativity and mystery, its end result is not. Elite athletes fail at marriage all the time -- and infidelity is only the most salacious of the many reasons why. Money issues, fame issues, travel issues, focus issues, time issues: It's more difficult than you'd think, being a great athlete and being married at the same time.
A-Rod got divorced. MJ got divorced. Lance Armstrong did, and Jeff Gordon, and Andre Agassi, and Greg Norman and Chris Evert (from each other after being divorced from others, too), and on and on. The point here isn't a roll call, but rather to help frame the thought. Athletes divorce at a higher rate than the public at large. It's complicated.
Most of the top-tier athletes I've known who failed at marriage suffered either from me-itis, got-rich-too-fast syndrome, or a pronounced case of arrested adolescence. Some of them realized after the fact that they liked being single and moneyed more than they liked being married. A few simply chose horribly when it came to a partner (that isn't unique to athletes; the divorce rate in America overall is put at roughly 40 to 50 percent, according to studies by Enrichment Journal and the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology, among others found at divorcerate.org), and some of them got married very young in life and had no idea the stress that a job of constant travel puts on the relationship.
But stress it is. You don't have to be a jock-worshipper to recognize the basic truth there. It's a weird life -- odd hours, hotel night after hotel night, postgame adrenaline that needs to be burned off somehow. Baseball and basketball players, for example, are flooding out of locker rooms and clubhouses at 11 at night, still pumped from the game they've just played.
"What am I supposed to do, go back to the room?" one of them asked me a few years ago. It was an entirely rhetorical question.
The arrangement is not normal in terms of how marriages are thought to work. And while unorthodox marriages certainly do succeed sometimes, the failures are more public, often because of the money involved and the emotional stake that people have in the athlete.
In a piece written for Golf Digest almost 10 years ago, the redoubtable Dan Jenkins essentially labeled Woods as a greater shot-maker than Hogan and a greater winner than Nicklaus, but quickly added these words: "Two things can stop Tiger -- injury or a bad marriage." Jenkins got it right on both.
Infidelity makes for big headlines, and it is a presence in many, many of the cases of divorcing athletes that you'll read. Again, we almost have to exclude Woods from the conversation, because his case represents the wildest exaggeration of the point I'm trying to make. But if there is still a question about whether top pros have groupies and hangers-on, the answer is absolutely, positively, and almost all of the time.
Any sportswriter could tell you that if he or she has spent any time on the road, because the road is where most of the dirty work gets done. It is certainly where most of the temptation lies. As celebrity divorce lawyer Raoul Felder told The New York Times last year, "It's a tough life to sustain a marriage. There's a maximum of temptation and lots of money floating around. It's a bad brew."
The money issue is real enough, too. The math is always subject to question because of its anecdotal nature; but according to an organization called Professional Athletes Outreach cited by the Times last year, a majority of the divorces by pro athletes are estimated to occur in retirement. Why? Well, for one thing, retirement means less money coming in -- often dramatically less money.
I've seen players' marriages blow up simply because the road is too hard, and because they have already chosen their career path and are going to stay on it. Most players don't quit the sport because their marriage is in trouble. If anything, they throw themselves deeper into their profession, which of course makes the ultimate failure of the marriage more likely.
You don't even have to be a player for Tha Life to overtake your marriage. Witness the train wreck in Los Angeles , where Frank and Jamie McCourt were rich, then rich and famous, then rich and famous owners of the Dodgers, and then a cautionary tale that threatens to explode the entire franchise. Not one good thing coming out of it, unless you count the part about the McCourts eventually falling back out of the public eye.
If anything, my time in the business has taught me to judge slowly when it comes to the subject. A guy like Tiger Woods makes that almost impossible, but not completely. The next time you read about a superstar who's still married to his first spouse, it won't be against the rules to be impressed.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His most recent book, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.