sports psychologist & clinical psychology

THEIR GAME: RISK (BOSTON GLOBE)

The Boston Globe – Jun 10, 2007 – Christopher L. Gasper – Their game: risk – Pro athletes seem to flout safety – After attending the wake of teammate Marquise Hill on June 1, members of the Patriots walked out of the Jacob Schoen and Son Funeral Home in New Orleans wearing something else besides the designer threads and gaudy jewelry they’re accustomed to: a look of stone-cold shock on their faces.

Although the defensive end’s death had occurred four days earlier — the body of Hill, who drowned following a Jet Ski accident, was discovered May 28 — it wasn’t until they saw him in a casket that it hit home.

“When you’re talking about life, a lot of times you feel like you’re at the pinnacle, you’re a professional athlete and it’s like you’re almost invincible,” said linebacker-turned-strength coach Don Davis. “It kind of brings vincibility, if that’s a word, back into life.”

Professional athletes carry a patina of invincibility. They’re young, wealthy, and in good physical condition. They are led to believe that they are different and special. Only through tragedies such as Hill’s are they jolted into the realization that they’re vulnerable and perishable, just like the rest of us.

It’s not a callous disregard for life or their own well-being that fuels the myth of invincibility. The very nature of their work conditions them to believe they can overcome pain, fear, and danger at will.

“They may have a feeling of being Superman,” said David Murray, a Palm Beach, Fla.-based sports psychologist who has worked with several NFL teams. “They think they’re indestructible. The active seeking of danger is part of contact sports. That’s going to be part of their inherent drive, to seek things that are exciting, and part of that comes with risk.”

Macho mentality

The 6-foot-6-inch, 300-pound Hill probably didn’t have risk-seeking on his mind when he hopped on his Jet Ski on Memorial Day evening to take a spin on Lake Pontchartrain, but, knowingly or not, he and his acquaintance, Ashley Blazio, who survived the accident, took a risk when they elected not to wear life jackets. In Hill’s case, it might have cost him his life.

There are different types of life jackets, including one called a type-1 that is designed to turn you upright if you lose consciousness in the water. The most common model is known as a type-3.

In Louisiana, Jet Ski operators are required by law to wear a personal flotation device (PFD). The law has been in effect since 1991, according to Lt. Col. Jeff Mayne, assistant chief of enforcement for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. If a Jet Ski operator is not wearing a life jacket, he or she is ordered back to shore. Mayne said that in the last year, just 20 citations have been issued for Jet Ski operators not wearing personal flotation devices.

“We take wearing a PFD pretty seriously,” said Mayne. “We enforce those safety practices as much as we can. Wearing a PFD on a Jet Ski, we have a pretty high compliance rate. That is not something you usually run into, is someone not wearing a PFD.”

Hill is not alone. There are other examples of athletes not taking precautions.

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock was killed in a car accident April 29 of this year. Hancock, a onetime Red Sox pitcher, had a blood-alcohol level of 0.157, nearly twice the legal limit in Missouri (0.08), and was talking on his cellphone when he slammed his SUV into a tow truck. He also was speeding.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was not wearing a helmet when his motorcycle collided with a car last June. The helmetless QB suffered a concussion, lost several teeth, and broke bones in his jaw and face. Helmets are optional for adults over 21 in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and Roethlisberger’s accident has sparked a debate over whether they should be made mandatory again.

In May 2005, Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow was popping wheelies on his motorcycle in a parking lot when he flipped over the handle bars and tore his right ACL, putting him out for the season.

A motorcycle mishap cost Jay Williams his NBA career. The former Duke basketball star, who was selected second overall in the 2002 draft by the Chicago Bulls, lost control and crashed into a pole in June 2003, fracturing his pelvis, tearing knee ligaments, and suffering nerve damage in his left leg. After three years, Williams returned to the NBA with the New Jersey Nets for the 2006-07 season but played in only five games before being cut.

“Part of the bravado of professional athletes is to do things without worrying about your physical health,” said Murray. “I think part of the rush and machismo of the professional athlete is to not take as many precautions as somebody else might take.”

Playing by different rules

Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs acknowledged there are some athletes who feel they’re above the rules.

“I think society puts us on a pedestal and pats us on the back and kind of blows our head up and lets us know that it is OK to bend the rules and break the rules because we are who we are,” said Hobbs. “You have to kind of be self-conscious and realize, ‘I am still a person and I still have to respect the rules and regulations of life.’ ”

Hobbs said Hill’s death was a wake-up call for many in the New England locker room.

“You’ve got to question, ‘Do I really need to be doing these things? What are the risks?’ ” said Hobbs. “There’s no reason you can’t have fun and enjoy yourself, but do it the right way. If you’re on the water, put on a vest or something like that. If you do ride motorcycles, put a helmet on. Be safe.

“You can enjoy all those things, but do it in a cautious way understanding that you’re not invincible.”

However, Murray maintained that pushing the limits is part of being a professional athlete.

Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, doesn’t think athletes are any more likely to engage in risky behavior than other active people in their age group. He said the actions of Hill, who was 24, are more likely linked to his age than his status as an NFL player.

“Most people that age feel invincible,” said Roby. “All you need to do is pick up the papers and see that guys who are not pro athletes and are the same age fall victim to stuff like this on a daily basis.

“It’s not just the culture of sport that might make them feel this sense of invincibility, although I think that certainly contributes, but I think it’s more the feeling of being 23 or 24 years old and thinking you have another 60 years to live and being willing to take risks.”

Our culture of athlete idolatry blinds us just as much as those we worship, said Roby. We want to believe as much as they do that our sports heroes are invincible or infallible — that they are as good at life as they are their games.

“We’ve made the false assumption that because they’re so good at what they do athletically they must have themselves together in every other way,” said Roby. “Just because somebody can throw a football or run the 100-yard dash in less than 10 seconds, that doesn’t mean they’re totally equipped socially to make all the right decisions. They might be less equipped because they’ve been coddled because of their athleticism, as opposed to people challenging them when they’ve acted inappropriately.

“To that point, there might be some athletes that think, ‘As big as I am and as fit as I am, there is nothing I can’t do.’ Well, you’re still human. Whether it’s stepping in front of a bullet or driving a car 120 miles per hour, there is only so much the flesh can take.”

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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