Baltimore Sun, Sun Sentinel – Jun 14, 2006 – Bill Ordine – On Sunday afternoons, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is expected to coolly stand in the pocket, oblivious to charging 300-pound defensive linemen and – without regard for his own welfare – deliver the ball downfield.
And it’s that very mentality, a sense of invincibility and a willingness to accept risk, that might have contributed to his habit of riding a motorcycle without a helmet – a practice that has him in a Pittsburgh hospital recovering from surgery after a collision with a car Monday.
The accident has stirred questions about athletes’ off-the-field activities that potentially place their team’s fortunes, their careers and even their lives at risk.
“It’s hard to change who you are just because it’s not Sunday afternoon,” sports psychologist John Murray said. “A football player’s personality and behavior rewards that kind of conduct.”
And while those with a vested interest in an athlete’s wellbeing – team management, agents, fans – might take exception, it’s difficult for some athletes to curb their appetites for excitement.
“I think for the most part you do have a lot of risk-takers in sports,” said Eric Morse, a sports psychiatrist who works with many University of Maryland athletes.
“They have to be able to throw themselves at a 300-pound lineman with less fear of hurting themselves than a normal person would have. So I think there is a predisposition to risky behavior.”
Roethlisberger, 24, suffered multiple facial fractures, including some to his upper and lower jaw and nose, according to doctors who performed a seven-hour operation. The quarterback also lost two teeth, chipped several others and suffered head cuts and a mild concussion. He did not have serious knee injuries.
His accident and many others – some far more severe – are hard-learned lessons that team officials, coaches and player agents use to impress on athletes the importance of distinguishing between risk that’s a necessary component of professional sports and unnecessary foolhardiness.
“You hate for that to be a tragic reminder for all of us. … Beyond the moral and ethic responsibility to do the right thing, you got to respect the obligation you have to your profession and your team,” Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “As simple as that sounds, that’s a part of it.”
Last year, another young NFL star, Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow, was seriously hurt in a motorcycle accident that cost him the entire 2005 season. And in 2003 after his NBA rookie season, the Chicago Bulls’ Jay Williams fractured his pelvis and tore knee ligaments in a motorcycle crash. He hasn’t played since and is still trying to get back into the league.
New Ravens quarterback Steve McNair said yesterday that he doesn’t own a motorcycle.
“If I did, I wouldn’t tell you right now,” he added.
“We all have responsibilities,” McNair said. “We have a responsibility to our family and a responsibility to the organization that you play for. Every year, something happens where a player gets into an accident or gets into trouble.”
In 2000, McNair’s teammate, Tennessee safety Marcus Robertson, required 150 stitches in his face because of a late-season motorcycle accident. As a result, Titans coach Jeff Fisher has banned his players from riding motorcycles during the season. Seattle coach Mike Holmgren strongly discourages his players from riding during the season.
Player contracts in most major sports usually include language addressing off-the-field activities deemed dangerous – motorcycle riding, skiing, auto racing, scuba diving and mountain climbing are a few. Sometimes, the contract provision is a general clause; other times, it lists specific activities.
If a player gets hurt while engaging in something that is forbidden in his contract, he could face the loss of his salary and might have to pay back a pro-rated portion of bonus money.
Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan said the club negotiates off-the-field activities on a case-by-case basis.
“You’re always sensitive because there have been cases like [Roethlisberger] along the way,” he said. “You can’t control everything. You can’t put people in glass houses. But it is something that keeps you up at nights sometimes.”
Orioles Kevin Millar and Javy Lopez both ride motorcycles. And both said they were unsure what their contracts said about that.
“Any time you get on the road with a motorcycle or a car, it is a risk,” said Millar, who owns three Harley-Davidson motorcycles and rides to home games. “You try to be as careful as you can. The helmet situation is always an issue. That was a lot with Ben. If there was not a helmet law, I’d be lazy and not wear the helmet. Now that I have kids, I thought about getting rid of [the motorcycles].”
While motorcycle riding is drawing attention because of Roethlisberger’s accident, other adventurous pursuits can pose dangers.
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In April, Washington Redskins center Casey Rabach required leg surgery after an accident on an all-terrain vehicle in Virginia.
When Ravens tight end Todd Heap was younger, he was an extreme-sports enthusiast who enjoyed snowboarding, wake boarding and even cliff diving. Now married with three children, Heap said he has stopped all of those things.
“You feel like you’re young and can do everything and it’s not going to hurt you,” Heap said. “All of a sudden, it sneaks up on you and it just happens. Instances like [Roethlisberger’s crash] happen.”
Even athletes in more genteel sports can be attracted to the occasional adrenalin rush. In April, golfer Tiger Woods dove 440 feet on a bungee jump in New Zealand.
Things weren’t any different 35 years ago when Walt Garrison was playing running back for the Dallas Cowboys. Garrison was a real cowboy participating in the rodeo during the offseason. Even then, coach Tom Landry warned Garrison that if got hurt steer wrestling, the Cowboys wouldn’t owe him a dime.
“I didn’t see the danger and I told him that it’s ignorance that makes a sport dangerous,” Garrison said. “I understood rodeo, I had grown up rodeoing, but I’d rather pick up a rattlesnake than ride a motorcycle.”
Eventually though, after Garrison tore up his knee at a rodeo in Montana after the 1974 season, his football career was over.
When clubs seek to limit players’ off-the-field activities, it’s one of those rare occasions when player agents will eagerly embrace management’s point of view.
“In the last year, we’ve had situations where teams added language [about potentially dangerous activities] where it’s becoming more common,” said agent Mike Sullivan, whose firm represents Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller.
Pittsburgh-based agent Ralph Cindrich, himself a former player, said he advises his clients both orally and in writing to refrain from pursuits that could jeopardize their careers, even recreational basketball.
“You’re in a charity basketball game,” he said, “and some guy might take a shot at you because you’re a pro football player.”
Agent Gary Wichard, an ex-college quarterback and a former motorcycle rider, first confronted the issue with client Brian Bosworth, the much-hyped linebacker who starred in a 1991 biker adventure movie, Stone Cold.
“It starts with the invincibility factor,” Wichard said.
The agent says he encourages clubs to include language in contracts limiting players’ activities because it makes his job easier.
“You would think … these guys would do everything they can to protect their bodies – work out, wear their seat belts,” he said. “Look at [Cincinnati quarterback] Carson Palmer, he gets seriously hurt playing the game. Well, for 16 games, Ben Roethlisberger is getting those same bullets shot at him and he says, ‘Oh, I think now I’ll [take this same risk] every day.'”
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.