Southern Vistas

It's the middle of summer, and with little more to worry about than preseason preparations, fans can be quick to categorize the most minor of incidents as full-blown, "sky is falling" level catastrophes.

The fractured bone in the foot of Eugene Smith has once again stirred a debate as to what types of activities athletes should engage in when they are away from the field or the weight room.

Smith, whose injury came in what has been termed an "off-field incident" (reported and rumored to be an all-terrain vehicle accident), had impressed his West Virginia teammates with his performance in 7-on-7 drills since arriving on campus in early June.

But the freshman's summer work came to an early end when he suffered the fracture, which has him walking with the aid of crutches and wearing a protective boot.

Recovery time is expected to range from six to eight weeks, as reported by Mike Casazza of the Charleston Daily Mail in an interview with Mountaineer head trainer Dave Kerns. That could mean the loss of at least some pivotal practice time in fall camp, which begins in early August.

While nothing is ever set in stone, (particularly when it comes to true freshmen) it was presumed by many that Smith would ultimately rise to the role of backup quarterback, either in fall camp or at some point during the season.

This would allow current No. 2 signal-caller Bradley Starks to completely focus on his work at wide receiver and afford Smith the opportunity to at least play in a limited role (perhaps in what WVU hopes might be the occasional blowout game in non-conference play) to get the youngster's feet wet before taking over under center as a sophomore.

That plan may or may not ultimately be effected by Smith's injury, as a speedy recovery could mean very little (if any) time lost in fall camp.

But the very possibility of a wrench being thrown into that plan has caused some to question Smith's choice of leisure activities, while some others have defended the youngster's right to live his life. ATV riding, after all, is an outdoor activity many in his new home state often enjoy.

It's an interesting question that has been posed in the past and has once again been brought to the fore by Smith's injury -- are there certain activities that are so inherently risky that an athlete (who, after all, relies on a healthy body to do his work) should never do them?

We've seen the consternation that came from some after Kellen Winslow II of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (but then of the Cleveland Browns) and Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers had separate motorcycle accidents in recent years.

Should those cases be viewed differently from that of Smith?

Of course, Winslow and Roethlisberger are professional athletes. They are paid millions of dollars by organizations that, in return, expect a full commitment from the employee to being in the best possible physical shape to play. Serious injuries, like the ones that come far too often from motorcycle riding, can certainly impede athletes from attaining that goal.

As a licensed motorcyclist myself, I know those risks and when I get on a bike, I accept them. However, I'm fortunate in that all but the most serious of injuries wouldn't keep me from being able to work. If I were a professional athlete, I may be less inclined to ride.

While this isn't intended to be a column to discuss whether college athletes are truly amateurs or whether they are indeed just more lowly-paid professionals, there is a certain expectation that one would expect comes with a scholarship offer to a major college as an athlete.

Professionals (like Winslow) may have clauses written into their contracts that expressly forbid them from taking on any "risky" hobbies, like motorcycle or ATV riding.

College athletes don't have that same issue, but scholarships are, in essence, payment for being able to work as an athlete and represent a university. Coaches and administrators can have a reasonable expectation that a player is doing all he or she can to remain in a physical condition that allows them to perform at a high level in return for that "payment".

Of course, WVU coach Bill Stewart has shown that he will not rule with an iron fist when it comes to such matters. The head man famously allowed Jarrett Brown to join Bob Huggins' men's basketball team and also allowed kicker Pat McAfee to try out for the Mountaineer soccer team under Marlon LeBlanc's direction.

While those decisions added injury risks that some may have viewed as "unnecessary", Stewart understood that essentially everything a person does in life has some level of risk.

Within reason, even young adults (including college athletes) must live their own lives and make their own choices.

Occasionally indulging in a thrill -- such as that which comes from riding a motorcycle or ATV -- is no more irresponsible of a decision than playing an extra sport (so long as all appropriate safety measures are taken and the rider is experienced and driving reasonably).

Most of us are sympathetic towards people who have such accidents and miss time from work dealing with injury -- so long as they are "regular" workers like us. For some reason, the public seems to have a bit of a double standard when it comes to athletes.

Amateur players, who aren't making millions of dollars playing sports, should be able to enjoy themselves and engage in the same recreational activities that many of the rest of us do. They should be able to do so without consternation when something unfortunately goes wrong.

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