Roethlisberger Injured

When Jay Williams slammed his motorcycle into a pole three years ago, suffering career-threatening injuries and voiding his contract with the Chicago Bulls, agent Leigh Steinberg told an interviewer that Williams wouldn’t be the last high-profile athlete to put his livelihood in jeopardy while risking life and limb.

“Players who are in their early 20s believe they’re omnipotent, that their bodies are impervious to injuries,” Steinberg, who represents several top NFL players, told the Plain Dealer of Cleveland in July 2003.

Steinberg discovered that again Monday when one of his clients, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, suffered a broken jaw and other injuries when he crashed his motorcycle in Pittsburgh.

Roethlisberger’s contract does not prohibit him from riding motorcycles. However, the standard NFL contract, which is not guaranteed, prohibits activities that “may involve a significant risk of personal injury.” More specific language regarding dangerous hobbies can be written into contracts.

NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball guaranteed contracts include a laundry list of prohibited activities, among them motorcycling. Also banned by baseball are auto racing, piloting an aircraft, being a passenger in a single-engine airplane, fencing, karate, judo, using a trampoline, ice boating, spelunking, basketball, football, white-water rafting, tennis, bicycle racing, rodeo, surfing and weightlifting not approved by the team.

The NBA bans include hang gliding, rappelling and bungee jumping, among other activities, as well as boxing, wrestling and lacrosse.

Motorcycle accidents happen even to experienced motor sports stars. When pole day at the Indianapolis 500 was rained out in 1969, driver Al Unser and his car owner, Parnelli Jones, went motorcycle riding in the vast infield of the speedway.

Unser crashed, suffering a broken leg, and had to miss the race.

Also, NASCAR stars Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have been injured in crashes the last two years while racing on other, lesser circuits.

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Even competitors in action sports are not immune from contract stipulations.

In 1998, surfer Kalani Robb of Hawaii suffered a broken wrist while riding a dirt bike, an injury that sidelined him for two months of the World Championship Tour. Although he managed to earn enough points to qualify for the ’99 Tour, his new contract with the clothing company that sponsored him forbade him from riding dirt bikes.

However, as General Manager Ernie Accorsi of the New York Giants said Monday, “you can put something in a contract, but that doesn’t prevent a player from doing it.”

Indeed, Roethlisberger joins a long list of professional athletes whose judgment has put their careers on the line.

Kellen Winslow Jr. of the Cleveland Browns, a year after signing a six-year, $40-million contract, suffered shoulder, knee and internal injuries, among them a lacerated liver, when he crashed his motorcycle in May 2005.

Third baseman Aaron Boone was released by the New York Yankees before the 2004 season after suffering a knee injury in a pickup basketball game, losing out on the majority of a $5.75-million contract.

The San Francisco Giants were more forgiving of Jeff Kent, who, less than two years after being the National League’s most valuable player, suffered a broken wrist in a motorcycle accident during spring training in 2002. The second baseman at first said that he had been injured while washing his truck.

Kent doesn’t hide the fact that he still rides motorcycles. Last season, Kent spoke openly about a trip to ride motorized dirt bikes with his sons.

In 1994, the Atlanta Braves nullified outfielder Ron Gant’s $5.5-million contract after he suffered a season-ending leg injury while riding a dirt bike.

“Ron and I have traveled a long way on that move,” General Manager John Schuerholz said Monday. “That became a very difficult circumstance for us. We made a decision we thought was the right one for the company.”


And with the stakes so high these days in an era of multiyear, multimillion-dollar guaranteed contracts, teams may be even less forgiving now.

“It wouldn’t be prudent to guarantee a contract if somebody participates in an activity that could jeopardize their career,” Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said. “When you guarantee large sums of money, you have to take every precaution possible.”

Their hope, of course, is that the athletes do the same.

But sometimes they don’t.

Jim Lonborg tore up his knee in a skiing accident shortly after his Cy Young Award-winning season with the Boston Red Sox in 1967 and was never the same. Danny Frisella, a pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers, was killed in a dune buggy accident in 1977.

Russ Francis’ penchant for flying stunt planes convinced the San Francisco 49ers that they should include a clause in the tight end’s contract banning it, former club president Carmen Policy recalled Monday.

“When you knew a guy was kind of crazy, you’d do it,” Policy said of adding specific stipulations, and Francis seemed to qualify. Once during a contract dispute, Policy said, Francis buzzed the 49ers’ practice field in his plane.

In 1978, owner George Steinbrenner of the Yankees fought hard to include a clause in Thurman Munson’s contract banning the catcher from piloting airplanes. He relented, however, when it became apparent that Munson would not agree.

In August 1979, Munson was killed when his plane crashed.

“Athletes tend to be younger,” said Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak, who for several years watched as Kobe Bryant and, occasionally, Shaquille O’Neal and Coach Phil Jackson, roared into practice on motorcycles. “When you’re younger, your personal safety isn’t what it should be.

“You have to remember that you’ve been given a physical gift that allows you to participate in a sport that’s special. You have to take care of your assets. There are contractual considerations, but also your career.”

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If the Lakers get wind of a player doing something that puts his career at risk, Kupchak, said, “we talk to them about it.”

In the NFL, the Tennessee Titans take it a step further.

“If one of our players comes riding into the parking lot on a motorcycle, we attack him,” General Manager Floyd Reese said. “We try to get the point across that all it takes is a little oil spot or a little grit on the road.”



Injury report

A standard NFL contract prohibits activities involving “significant risk of personal injury” outside of football. A sampling of motorcycle accident injuries suffered by NFL players:

* Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh (2006): Broken jaw and nose, multiple facial fractures. In serious but stable condition after undergoing seven hours of surgery.

* Jerome Mathis, WR, Houston (2006): Hand injury, scrapes and bruises. Sits out off-season workouts.

* Kellen Winslow Jr., TE, Cleveland (2005): Internal, right shoulder and knee injuries. Sits out season.

* Jamie Henderson, CB, N.Y. Jets (2004): Coma from closed head trauma. Sits out season. Waived after he fails physical.

* Marcus Robertson, S, Tennessee (2002): 150 stitches in face. Sits out season finale.

* Kenny Mixon, DE, Miami (1999): Abrasions, bruises. Sits out game.

* Gary Brown, RB, N.Y. Giants (1999): Concussion. Sits out two weeks of training camp.

* Jermaine Smith, DL, Green Bay (1998): Smashes elbow. Sits out season.

* Shaun Price, DT, Buffalo (1997): Injures elbow. Sits out start of season.

Source: Times and wire reports


Times staff writers Mike Bresnahan, Tim Brown, Helene Elliott, Sam Farmer, Chris Foster, Steve Henson, Eric Stephens, Mike Terry and Pete Thomas contributed to this report.