Explaining The Public Obsession with Athletes’ Partners, And Taylor Swift

Dr. Shani Horowitz-Rozen
5 min readMar 9, 2024

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You might have heard of Taylor Swift.

And if you’re even slightly a Swiftie, you surely know that Taylor Swift has recently started dating Travis Kelce, one of the greatest tight ends, playing for the Kansas City Chiefs, who won the Super Bowl recently.

But even if Taylor Swift isn’t your cup of tea, you’ve surely heard of Patrick Mahomes, the Kansas City Chiefs Quarterback, Stephen Curry, the point guard for the Golden State Warriors, and maybe even about one Beckham, David Beckham, the famous soccer player. There’s also Simone Biles, the Olympic champion gymnast, and Michael Phelps, the legendary swimmer.

Each shares a common thread: their partners, who often find themselves thrust into the spotlight. These partners, sometimes referred to as “WAGs” (wives and girlfriends), are subject to constant media scrutiny, rankings, and comparisons, often perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

The mythmaking of the Super Athlete

Athletes are celebrated for their extraordinary physical and mental prowess. They achieve feats that captivate audiences, like watching Olympians push the boundaries of human potential. This admiration fuels the myth of the “Super Athlete,” a flawless being of strength, beauty, and success. Combined with mental abilities to withstand pressure and stress, they are perceived by the public as unstoppable. Their sculpted, muscular bodies serve as a symbol of success, beauty, strength, and immortality.

We see them at their peak, documented in powerful poses that highlight their accomplishments, but rarely witness the immense work and sacrifices behind the scenes.

Athletes are exposed to the public eye during sports competitions, at their moment of testing, or, if you will, while they are doing their public work. We almost never see them in the hidden parts of the story of their career: in the Sisyphean routine of their training routines. And we certainly don’t see them when they fail during training. Though if you think about it, it’s very logical that they fail because that’s the only way to progress, but that’s a topic for another post. We see athletes at the peak and trough moments of their careers. The media further perpetuates this myth by focusing on athletes’ public performances and curated social media personas.

The allure of gossip and the human connection

The fascination with athletes’ partners stems from a desire for a seemingly forbidden glimpse into a world perceived as different from our own. We yearn to see how these individuals navigate everyday life, hoping to discover their “true selves,” flaws and all. This voyeuristic desire, often fueled by gossip, stems from a fundamental human need for connection. We want to see if, despite their extraordinary achievements, these individuals share the same vulnerabilities and desires as us.

Spoiler alert: they are human, just like us, with their own unique set of challenges and triumphs.

Understanding the fascination with celebrity partners

We often develop one-sided relationships with celebrities and characters, known as para-social relationships. These bonds, while non-reciprocal, create the illusion of connection and familiarity.

Think back to your favorite movie character. You might have identified with their struggles, admired their traits, or even imagined being their friend. This is the essence of the para-social relationship.

Para-social Relationships

Communication research discusses para-social relationships in which viewers (i.e., us) develop a relationship with celebrities or characters appearing in the media. This is a one-sided social relationship, where one person knows a lot about another person, while the latter does not know the former at all. Over time, we develop the feeling that we know and understand the character, just like friends.

Let’s take a moment to dive into the world of cinema: When we like a character in a movie, we look at them as if looking into a mirror where we see ourselves. We feel an emotional connection to the character and want to feel similar to, or close to them. We want to feel that we, too, are cool, beautiful, or brave like them. Or that this character would like us if they met us in real life. The excellent movie “The Purple Rose of Cairo” extensively deals with this story, but that’s for another post.

Back to athletes: We observe their public persona from our private space. We watch their persona develop before our eyes and feel an emotional connection to them, wanting to feel similar to or close to them.

Athletes and the myth of superhumanity

This phenomenon extends to athletes, who are often viewed as superhuman figures. We observe their achievements from our homes and develop an emotional connection, yearning for a sense of closeness to their success and strength.

Athletes’ partners: The human connection

Athletes’ partners bridge the gap between the extraordinary and the ordinary. They’re talented individuals who navigate life alongside these remarkable figures, reminding us that even elite athletes have human connections.

Imagine Patrick Mahomes’ partner, Brittany Mahomes. As the mother of his children, she demonstrates the qualities required to support someone extraordinary like Mahomes. We can see how her personal stories on her medical situation and the familial pictures humanize his narrative, offering a relatable perspective on an otherwise extraordinary life.

The illusion of intimacy

Through glimpses of athletes’ partners, we feel like we’re gaining access to the athletes “hidden story.” However, this is an illusion. Media coverage often creates a facade of intimacy, controlling the narrative and fueling our desire to delve deeper.

It is ostensibly a glimpse into their private world and the person with whom they share their intimacy. The experience of watching their partners feels like peering into the one-way mirror through which we observe the athletes: we discover another layer of the athlete’s private world, the one behind the scenes.

However, it is an imagined intimacy since we know very little about elite athletes’ true private lives. Creating a veil of intimacy and controlling what is revealed is the role of the hidden story accompanying their coverage so we can continue to consume information and media. Imagined intimacy makes us feel closer to our heroes when we continue the story in our imagination.

Imagined intimacy fuels our fascination. We weave narratives in our minds, feeling a false sense of closeness to these public figures.

Beyond athletes: A universal phenomenon

This experience isn’t limited to athletes. We encounter it with CEOs, speakers, and various media figures that the public adores. Every narrative has an underlying story waiting to be told or interpreted by the audience.

Understanding your audience and crafting the narrative

Understanding what truly captivates an audience is crucial when constructing any media narrative. By acknowledging this, we can craft stories that resonate with them while being mindful of the potential pitfalls of perpetuating false intimacy.

As for elite athletes, instead of perpetuating unhealthy comparisons and intruding on their privacy, we can shift our focus to appreciating them for their athletic achievements and acknowledge their partners as individuals, not accessories.

And as for Taylor Swift, she stands apart. As the central figure in her own story, she controls the narrative and challenges the traditional role of partners in the public eye. Because she is the real star.

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Dr. Shani Horowitz-Rozen

Helping companies and executives tell their stories and focus their messages. Framing is everything