Rich Athletes Acting Stupid

Bobby Curran
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Friday - June 23, 2006
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The contretemps involving Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger calls to mind the dilemma faced by team management in regard to player conduct.

Special provisions are often written into professional contracts that proscribe specific activities deemed too dangerous - and a player’s known predilections may figure into such a ban. If said player has publicly expounded on the joys of hang-gliding, for example, expect it to be forbidden by team management.

Roethlisberger’s motorcycle accident is one of the gray areas. Big Ben was riding on a city street. Albeit sans helmet, he wasn’t trying to jump the Snake River Canyon. Although he hit a car windshield face first, it appears Roethlisberger has lucked out. Following surgery, his prognosis is excellent, and he may be available for the start of training camp.

Roethlisberger’s contract contained only standard language that prohibits activities likely to result in injury. The Steelers admirably refused to answer questions about seeking money back from their quarterback, confirming their concerns for his health and welfare.

But it is not unprecedented for professional teams to seek financial relief on this basis. Only a few years ago, N.Y. Yankees infielder Aaron Boone suffered a serious knee injury while playing pickup basketball, an activity prohibited in his contract. Boone told the team the truth, and the Yankees promptly voided the millions remaining on his deal.

Player investment has become huge business, and you can expect the trend of limiting off-field behavior to continue - although it’s unlikely that contract language alone will prove effective against the follies of youth. It certainly didn’t stop Kellen Winslow Jr., who suffered a serious motorcycle accident injury and has yet to play in a regular season NFL game.

It’s easy for those on the outside looking in to be critical of some of the players’ choices. How selfish, they decry, how stupid to risk their own careers and their teams’ fortunes. But the risk-taking, adventure-seeking urges that inform these choices are the same ones that led many players to their primary athletic success in the first place. In a recent interview, Tiger Woods admitted to a new hobby: free-diving to 100 feet, a sport in which fatalities occur even among experts. Granted, Tiger’s sport is an individual one, but you can’t help but think, why would he do this? Well, there are only four majors a year, and you’ve got to get the rush somehow.

And just how do you decide on what to ban for any particular athlete? It wouldn’t seem to make much sense to ask NFL draftee Jeremy Bloom to forego skiing since he was a member of the U.S. Olympic ski team.

But you wouldn’t recommend to most NFL players that they take a shot at a black-diamond slope.

Colleges also try to limit behaviors of their athletes. At UH, football players are barred from motorcycle or moped use in season, despite the fact that three of their coaches ride them. You can always coach with broken limbs. The wildest ban I’ve heard of was one imposed on my brother and his teammates at a college in rural Maryland: No cow-tipping. I can’t imagine the number of fermented beverages I would have to consume or the amount of boredom endured to make me want to drive up to some farmer’s meadow, creep up on a slumbering cow, and knock it off its pins. Must be a regional thing.

A reliance on common sense is apparently out, as far as general managers are concerned. The list of banned activities will expand, and still will never stop some athletes from testing the boundaries.

Extreme skydiving, anyone?

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