The Debate Rages On

Bears veteran offensive guard Ruben Brown said he has ridden motorcycles since he entered the league 12 years ago. While Brown is safety conscious, he admits he doesn't wear a helmet on short errands when in states that don't require them by law.

"Every time I get on the bike I think about the potential of an accident," said Brown, who avoids unnecessary risks. "That helps you stay aware.

"But there's never a guarantee. I don't do tricks and burnouts. You have to learn over the years what your limitations are. I used to ride the street bikes, and I felt they were a little too fast for me. Now I go with the bikes that people consider for the old men, the cruisers."

Buccaneers running back Michael Pittman said he rides his motorcycles without a helmet -- which is legal in Florida -- but that he intends to sell his bikes.

Both players were discussing the subject after the serious injuries suffered by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in a motorcycle accident last week kicked off a firestorm of reaction and opinions from around the league.

The standard question is why would a professional athlete -- in his prime -- risk millions of dollars in potential earnings by riding one of the world's fastest street-legal bikes without a helmet?

The answer isn't as clear-cut as the average angry Steelers fan might want to believe. It's a far more complicated issue when considering the type of athlete it takes to be successful in the NFL.

"I wish all our players liked board games or low-risk hobbies," said Browns general manager Phil Savage. "Unfortunately, one of the things that makes these professional athletes is they have an edge that makes them want to seek more."

So the debate rages: where is the line crossed? Every NFL coach was asked his opinion last week, and most responded that all they can do is warn their players of the risks. After all, it's a free country and they can't stop their players from engaging in dangerous activities off the field.

But what about a responsibility to fans and teammates?

"I could care less about a team, it's about my life and my family," said Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes, who owns a bike similar to Roethlisberger's Suzuki Hayabusa.

But Spikes was equally adamant about the use of helmets: "You should wear one. Rule or not, it's safety first."

Roethlisberger's accident not only opened the debate about off-field activities, it brought immediate attention to the hobbies of several other high-profile players.

Falcons linebacker Patrick Kerney told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he has flown his single-engine Cirrus SR22 G2 for 2 1/2 years. He said he has 235 hours of training.

"There's no question there is some fear, but it's a risk most people feel is acceptable," Falcons general manager Rich McKay told the paper. "We haven't seen many airplane accidents. He's not going out there doing anything reckless. It's not something that you like a lot, but it's not something we have a big concern with."

Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich was quick to defend Roethlisberger, a fellow alum of the Mid-America Conference.

"Everybody's making a big deal out of it and giving him the I-told-you-so thing," Leftwich said. "That's not what he wants to hear right now. Riding a bike isn't any more dangerous than bungee jumping. Everybody has their own hobbies and his is riding bikes. I don't have a problem with that."

However, Leftwich's openness on the bike issue dried up after a check of Florida state records showed he has owned motorcycles since halfway through his rookie season. Asked about his bikes, Leftwich responded, "I'm not answering any more questions about a bike. I already gave you my answer so stop asking."

There is no doubt Roethlisberger's accident will bring scrutiny to player contracts, and whether teams have the right to recoup money for injuries sustained during certain off-field activities. But at the end of the day, it's a personal decision each individual athlete must make.

While quarterbacks Jon Kitna from Detroit and Trent Green from Kansas City said they try to avoid any risky activities away from football because they don't want to jeopardize their careers, there will always be those like Roethlisberger who spurn the advice of coaches and teammates.

"It's unfortunate," said Bills safety and NFL players union president Troy Vincent, who added he never rides his motorcycles without a helmet. "He (Roethlisberger) had been warned many times by family members, teammates, coaches, and it happened. I know we emphasize it to the player reps, 'Tell the guys to make wise decisions.'

"You don't want to tell a guy what he can and can't do. All you can say is, 'Take advantage of this window of (earning) opportunity and be smart.' We can all get hurt driving a car, but those other things -- riding a motorcycle, hang gliding, skiing -- just take some precautionary measures to at least be safer."

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