Risks cheered, but only on field

June 15, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

What do you call an athlete who avoids unnecessary off-the-field risks, stays away from motorcycles, Jet Skis and bungee-jumping in the offseason, and heeds the clauses in his contract and the pleas from his coaches, teammates and fans?

A smart player who respects those who depend on him - not like Ben Roethlisberger.

Now, what do you call an athlete who runs out of bounds to avoid unnecessary hits, pulls up at the railing instead of chasing that foul pop-up into the stands, and hangs around the three-point line instead of driving the lane?

A punk.

So we've got a serious problem, us as fans and, you'd have to think, them as players. We've got a double standard to deal with. We've got to balance our understandable desire to see our stars take care of themselves when they're not required to put themselves in harm's way, with our lust to see them maim themselves in a game if that's what it takes to win.

The cost of their choosing not to do so is having us blow kisses and make meow-ing noises at them for the rest of their careers. Or for their teammates, coaches and opponents to do it. We don't mind them being "soft" when the season's over, but not in the final two minutes, the ninth inning or when the season is on the line.

We want it both ways.

There's a lot more to it than our wanting players to take care of themselves when they have the chance, so they can wreck themselves for our entertainment when it counts. It doesn't make us poor excuses for human beings to want that.

It's also not intrinsically wrong for players to resist the call to tone it down during the offseason. To them, the whole debate about flipping the competition-and-risk-taking switch is moot: The switch is always on, and they flip it off only when someone orders them to, if then.

Wearing a helmet while riding choppers in the offseason (which Roethlisberger refused to do)? If the NFL didn't require it, plenty of players wouldn't wear a helmet during games.

The two sides are just going to have to compromise on that. Everyone has to know the line between reckless and illegal (a line that, it appears, college basketball Player of the Year J.J. Redick was unclear about when he was arrested on DWI charges Tuesday). But we simply have to resign ourselves to the fact that this won't be the generation that learns how to sidestep all pitfalls and make every right decision.

And the players have to recognize that they're not going to avoid those contract clauses, or the scorn of fans when their indiscretions cost them playing time or, at least, anxiety.

It's when we - fans and players - take that next step and struggle over how reckless to be on the field, that things get fuzzy.

Leaving everything, literally, on the field or court or ice, earns endless praise. Broken bones, torn muscles, scrambled brains, flus, migraines, pain that only a massive needle can relieve - when the stars play through that, show heart, play with guts, they are rewarded with, at the very least, our admiration.

And it isn't just football. Dwyane Wade, the hero of Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Tuesday night, is so renowned for sacrificing his body, his shoe campaign is based around it. He has already entered NBA lore with a postseason Flu Game (just like Michael Jordan), and will play in Game 4 tonight with some vague knee injury.

Meanwhile, one of ABC's studio hosts for the Finals, Scottie Pippen, has yet to be forgiven by some for missing a Game 7 against the Detroit Pistons 16 years ago because of a migraine. For a while, it wasn't clear whether Jordan himself had forgiven him.

Illnesses and injuries happen. Most of what players play through are things that would have us commoners screaming for paramedics, even if it is something as simple as the flu. Wade was not expected to miss work that day, nor was Pippen excused for his migraine.

We demand that athletes think of their futures and scold them for risking millions upon millions in future earnings when they sky-dive or mountain-climb or hunt grizzly bears in the offseason. That all changes when they don't fight for that extra yard in Week 3, or step in front of an onrushing Shaq for a charge in mid-February, or go into home standing up instead of headfirst into the catcher's shinguards in May.

Shouldn't they be thinking of their futures, their responsibilities, their long-term well-being then, too?

Nah.

So the test of how the Roethlisberger saga plays out won't come the next time he gets on a motorcycle, in-season or not, with helmet or not.

It will be when he's in uniform, running out of the pocket and stepping nimbly out of bounds - and some fan shouts a certain word at him.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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