sports psychologist & clinical psychology

NATURAL BORN RISK-TAKERS? EXPERTS: THRILLS, SENSE OF INVINCIBILITY DRIVE ATHLETES

The Washington Times – Jun 29, 2006 – Bob Cohn – About four years ago, sports agent Gary Wichard had a piece of advice for one of his clients, Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor: “Get off the bike.”

Recently, Taylor offered some words of his own to Wichard: “Thank you.”

This was after Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. Roethlisberger, who was riding without a helmet, suffered a broken jaw, broken nose and other facial injuries. He underwent seven hours of surgery but otherwise was considered lucky. He might play again this season.

Taylor listened to Wichard and stopped riding his motorcycle. Roethlisberger listened to no one who urged him to do the same thing. Neither did Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow, former Chicago Bulls guard Jay Williams – who were also seriously injured in motorcycle accidents – and other players injured in off-field incidents.

The standard NFL contract prohibits athletes from engaging in activities that “may involve a significant risk of personal injury.”

The NFL contract actually is less specific than those of Major League Baseball, the NBA and NHL, which spell out such activities, although risk clauses can be added to individual contracts (Roethlisberger’s contract does not have such a clause). The intent is to dissuade athletes from engaging in risky hobbies. In other words, if they are going to get hurt, let it happen on the field, the ice or the court.

Such clauses cannot keep athletes off motorcycles or the ski slopes or out of trouble. Rather, they prevent players from getting paid if they suffer a career-ending injury.

“I think the team and the league as a whole is just looking out for the best interests of the player and protecting a very valuable asset,” Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said.

The concept of risk clauses in contracts was inspired by Boston Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg, who after winning the Cy Young Award in 1967 wrecked his career in a skiing accident. Most serious injuries that have occurred off the field since Lonborg’s have involved motorcycles.

Williams has not played basketball since his 2003 crash. He is trying to come back. The same thing happened in 2005 to Winslow, the Browns’ No. 1 pick the previous year.

The Bulls released Williams and could have voided the $7 million remaining on his contract but agreed to a $3 million settlement. Winslow, who signed a six-year, $40 million contract, lost about $3 million in bonus money. He returned to the practice field this month and may recoup the money if he reaches certain incentives.

Although they suffered terrible injuries, Williams and Winslow got off easy financially.

But others, such as Ron Gant and Aaron Boone did not. An outfielder for the Atlanta Braves, Gant suffered a season-ending injury while riding a dirt bike in 1994 and the Braves voided his $5.5 million contract. Boone, a third baseman whose game-winning home run sent the New York Yankees into the 2003 World Series, blew out his knee in an offseason pick-up basketball game. He was released and lost most of his $5.75 million contract.

Grunfeld said he does not think athletes generally are predisposed toward taking risks more than anyone else.

“It’s just like any percentage of the population,” he said.

Said sports agent Ron Shapiro: “They’re not out of the norm. It could be an accountant or a lawyer. A lot of CEOs ride motorcycles.”

Capitals general manager George McPhee believes risk-taking to be more a function of age than occupation.

“You can’t stop them from being young,” he said.

Said George Mason sports psychologist Deborah Wilson: “There is going to be a certain percentage of these athletes who actually thrive on putting themselves in risky situations and really thrive on the thrill [but] they are not in the majority.”

Grunfeld and McPhee, in light of their own experiences, agree.

“These are professional, mature adults,” Grunfeld said of his own players. “I think we’re very fortunate. We have a group of extremely professional players who work very hard and want to get better and do what’s necessary. .. They’re very responsible in the way they handle themselves.”

McPhee said he does not believe any current Caps ride motorcycles. But several players, including Jan Bulis, Richard Zednik and Chris Simon used to ride, McPhee said, in defiance of the NHL contract. But rather than preach, McPhee brought in a Secret Service agent to dispense advice and safety lessons.

“We had one kid riding his bike with flip-flops,” he said.

Which helps illustrate why Wilson, who used to coach women’s basketball at Ohio State, acknowledges that athletes truly are wired differently from non-athletes.

“They have confidence in their bodies, they’re able to control and manipulate their bodies,” she said. “Most athletes are able to look at the activity and weigh the inherent danger and determine if it’s really worth it. But there are some to whom that thrill is addictive and they seek it, and they will take risks that are not necessary and put themselves over the edge.”

Another sports psychologist, John Murray, who is based in Palm Beach, Fla., agreed.

“Knowing what I know about behavior, if you make a living diving over the line of scrimmage and crashing into linebackers, you’ll also be more compelled to ride a motorcycle,” Murray said. “I don’t have the data, but it seems that is the case.”

Shapiro, who represented Orioles’ future Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. – who had a clause in his contract that allowed him to play basketball in the offseason – said athletes are “probably more prone” toward risky behavior.

“I think that no one has ever said no to them,” he said. “They never learned a lot of discipline. Part of it is their physical makeup. They’re athletes. They feel they have a certain strength, a physical power that makes them impervious to injury.”

Wichard, a former quarterback at C.W. Post whose clients include Redskins Chris Cooley and Adam Archuleta, used to ride a motorcycle. He understands the mind set.

“They say, ‘Dude, I’m an athlete. I know how to handle this. I’m quick. I’ve got athletic reflexes,’ ” he said. “Heck, I said that to my wife. Then after one accident I saw I said, ‘You know what? It’s not worth it.’ ”

Wichard said he had trouble convincing Taylor at first.

“We went through many rounds of that discussion,” he said. “As long as he can get on that field and play he’s gonna continue to make a lot of money.”

Ironically, Taylor was slightly injured in April in an offseason accident, but it had nothing to do with a motorcycle. Driving his car with his wife, Taylor was cut on the arm by an out-of-control driver in what was described as a “road rage” incident. The other driver was arrested and charged with aggravated battery.

So, anything can happen. But, as Wichard says, “Why throw another obstacle in the way?”

GRAPHIC: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a broken jaw and nose when he wrecked this motorcycle earlier this month.

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.

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