Ben Roethlisberger isn’t smiling these days. Neither are the Steelers: The brash young quarterback who is fast ascending to legend status after he helped land the Steel City its fifth title in just his second season, may have made his most glaring mistake Monday morning. Big Ben, renowned for his uncanny poise and quick decision-making in the pocket, took a ride on his motorcycle through downtown Pittsburgh – he left his helmet at home. As a result, he became a hood ornament for a silver Chrysler New Yorker. Roethlisberger collided with the car, broke his nose and jaw, knocked out or broke two of his teeth and scuffed up his knees, according to published reports. It took nearly seven hours of surgery to repair multiple bone fractures and stitch up a 9-inch laceration on his head. Early indications are that Roethlisberger will be back in the huddle during training camp, although the team may want to hold off on photos for a few months (they don’t want to frighten the kids). A collectively sigh of relief is reverberating around Pittsburgh; the team and the fans will apparently have their franchise quarterback in the lineup in Sept. 7’s opener against the Dolphins. And, on a secondary note, they won’t have to suffer through the latest round of the Charlie Batch experience (if you’re unfamiliar, ask a Lions fan).Congratulations, Ben: You join a illustrious group of athletes who unnecessarily put themselves in harm’s way by jumping on a motorcycle. You might not have suffered the same consequences as Jay Williams or Kellen Winslow Jr., but your actions were no less boneheaded.Williams, the talented Duke point guard who was the AP’s college player of the year in 2002 and a No. 2 overall draft pick, crashed his Yamaha sport bike into a light pole in June 2003. The budding star injured his pelvic bone, tore knee ligaments and sustained severe nerve damage in his left leg, which has left his future on the court in doubt.The Bulls did the admirable thing and honored one more year of Williams’ contract before releasing him in 2004. They even reached a buyout on the remaining years of the deal, a reported $3 million. The team was in no way obligated to provide such compensation because Williams was in direct violation of a clause that appears in the majority of player contracts. Standard language that appears in contracts, often referred to as “other activities,” warns players about engaging in other activities that involve a significant risk of personal injury. In such circumstances, teams are well within their rights to recoup millions if a player is unable to compete. Such was the case for Winslow, who sustained injuries to his right shoulder and knee after he hit a parking lot curb while popping wheelies on his motorcycle in May 2005. The man who once called himself “The Chosen One” was wearing his helmet, but it was unbuckled and fell off on impact. The contract violation may have cost the former University of Miami tight end the $4.4 million signing bonus he received after inking a $40 million contract as the No. 6 pick in the 2004 draft.And Winslow, who has caught just five balls for a total of 50 yards, was still recovering from a broken right leg that kept him out of 14 games in 2004 when he pulled his Knievel-like stunt – apparently the U’s athletic department isn’t churning out Rhodes Scholars.Former San Francisco Giants second baseman Jeff Kent broke his left wrist during the opening days of spring training in March of 2002, prompting team officials to investigate the nature of the accident. While Kent insisted he fell while washing his truck, reports surfaced that he was, you guessed it, popping wheelies. GM Brian Sabean told ESPN that, had Kent violated his contract, the team would lean toward recouping its losses. Kent, who made $37,000 per game, missed no time during the regular season. Is it just that athletes can’t read the fine print on their contracts? Do they think they’re invincible and feel the need to continually test the limits? There’s no other explanation why they would willingly risk their careers and earning potential. Understandably, the clause is vague. Teams could benefit from spelling out exactly what activities involve significant risk. Can the Raiders recoup money from Warren Sapp if he misses a month after severely burning his hand on the oven during culinary class? I’m guessing not. In light of Williams’ fall, NBA teams have reportedly clarified the terms of their contracts with great detail. Roethlisberger’s injury should spur similar modifications in the NFL.”I wish all our players liked board games or low-risk hobbies,” Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage said Tuesday in a story by the Associated Press. “Unfortunately, that’s part of the reason that makes these guys professional athletes. They have a little bit of an edge to want to do more, seek more. Where’s the line? I don’t know that.”Somewhere in this equation, though, common sense must take precedent. Athletes face enough of risks on the field. Off it, if you’re using your legs as bumpers, take a moment to think about such a choice. The fans and the organization are counting on you. The risks far outweigh the rewards. Just ask Roethlisberger. For athletes, riding around on two wheels isn’t unlawful, it’s irresponsible.Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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