A Question of Safety

It's been the NFL's hot topic since the morning of Monday, June 12. Many players have found themselves grilled by the media regarding their own need to "court danger" in the wake of the injuries suffered by Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger when his bike collided with a car near an intersection in downtown Pittsburgh.

Several players who ride motorcycles for pleasure expressed concern for Roethlisberger.

They also expressed dismay over the fact that the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl wasn't wearing a helmet, something Roethlisberger said he would now do, if and when he climbs back aboard a two-wheel machine. Pennsylvania repealed its mandatory helmet law for adults in 2003.

Bills free safety Troy Vincent, who like Roethlisberger is a resident of Pennsylvania and doesn't have to wear a helmet by law when he rides his motorcycles, said he'd never hit the streets unprotected.

"It's unfortunate," said Vincent, president of the NFL players union. "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."

Unlike the NHL, NBA and Major League Baseball, where contracts are guaranteed and clubs protect their investments by including a long list of off-field activities that are banned for players, the NFL's standard contract is a lot less specific. It prohibits activities that "may involve significant risk of personal injury." But since these contracts are not guaranteed beyond the signing bonus, the clause seems to have little weight, leaving teams to count on players to use common sense.

That doesn't always prevail.

Since 1997, at least nine NFL players have been involved in motorcycle accidents. Three had to sit out the season recovering from their injuries -- Cleveland tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr., in 2005, New York Jets cornerback Jamie Henderson in 2004, and Green Bay defensive lineman Jermaine Smith in 1998.

Vincent said the issue of forfeiting signing bonus money if a player is injured in a thrill-seeking off-field activity wasn't addressed in the last round of labor talks. It mostly centered on teams recouping money if a player, like Terrell Owens, is suspended. But Roethlisberger's accident could force the NFL's standard contract to contain language covering such issues. Certainly, teams can write it into a contract for an individual player and the union has no problem with that, Vincent said.

"It could, from club to club," Vincent said. "It's a quarterback now. Other instances it happened, and it's 'OK, be careful.' But here's a young QB. Now maybe all the new QB contracts may have something in them, and then it goes to wideouts, and running backs, your high-priced guys."

According to a Scripps Howard News Service study, motorcycle deaths in the United States have nearly doubled in a decade, to 4,000 annually, because more states have allowed riders to go without helmets.
Vincent, 35, a father of three, hasn't ridden in several years because his wife grew too worried about his safety.

"It wasn't because of football I chose to get off the bike, it was because of my wife and children," he said. "It was like, 'Every time you get on that thing honey, I'm feeling a bit (scared) and it's not so much you, it's the other people around you on the road.' Because of the way my wife felt, she -- I call my bike a she -- she collects a lot of dust now."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.

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.

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.

In Roethlisberger's case, the lesson appears to have been learned. In a statement issued four days after the accident, Roethlisberger discussed a new, and hard-earned, perspective:

"In the past few days, I have gained a new perspective on life. By the grace of God, I am fortunate to be alive, surrounded by loved ones and lifted by the prayers and support of so many. I am sorry for any anxiety and concern my actions have caused others, specifically my family, the Steelers organization, my teammates and our fans.

I recognize that I have a responsibility to safeguard my health in the off-season so I can continue to lead our team effectively. I never meant any harm to others nor to break any laws. I was confident in my ability to ride a motorcycle and simply believed such an accident would not happen to me. If I ever ride again, it certainly will be with a helmet.

My deepest appreciation goes out to the Steelers organization and my teammates for the compassion they have shown me. The physicians and support staff at Mercy Hospital were simply amazing, and I will forever be grateful for their caring treatment.

I want to assure everyone I am committed to a complete and timely recovery. I look forward to being at training camp in Latrobe (Pennsylvania) and to winning football games this season."

In the end, the ramifications of this accident could be far-reaching, affecting every player who faces danger on the field and flirts with disaster outside the lines.

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