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Roethlisberger’s decision

Posted by Doug on June 13, 2006

I'd better post something about Ben Roethlisberger's motorcylce accident.

First of all, I have yet to hear anyone criticize Roethlisberger for riding a cycle. No, everyone is on him for riding a cycle without a helmet. Why is riding the cycle OK, but riding it without a helmet is not? Because riding with the helmet is safer, I guess. But driving in a car is safer than either. I don't have data, but I'd guess that the marginal difference in severe injury probability between a car trip and a helmeted cycle trip is greater than that between a helmeted cycle trip and an unhelmeted one. (Feel free to chime in with data if you've got it.) It seems arbitrary to focus on the helmet. But that's not what this rant is about.

And while I do agree with the sentiment for the most part, this is not a libertarian-style "it's his life and he can do whatever he likes as long as he doesn't infringe on others' rights to do the same" rant. No, I am actually going to argue that Big Ben's decision to continue to ride his cycle sans helmet was, in fact, not a stupid one at all.

As everyone knows, getting out of bed in the morning is a risk. You probably got in your car and drove to work this morning, knowing full well that there was a small probability that that decision would be the direct cause of your grisly death. That is exactly what Roethlisberger did when he hopped on the bike with no helmet yesterday. Yes, you're saying, but I have to drive to work. Ben doesn't have to ride without a helmet. He could simply take the same ride with a helmet, and be 42% safer.

I'll grant that Roethlisberger would not literally shrivel up and die if he were forced to wear a helmet. But everyone has certain psychological needs, and it's just plain as day to me that one of Ben Roethlisberger's is satisfied by riding a motorcycle without a helmet.

Whatever you think about his decision, he is one of the best in the world at a job that requires a lot of decision making, so it is at least clear that he is not a stupid person. When Kellen Winslow was hurt in a bike wreck last May, Bill Cowher lectured Roethlisberger about the need to wear a helmet, but Ben refused to start wearing one.

When a smart person consciously makes a decision like that --- especially after so recently seeing a colleague demonstrate the potential consequences --- there is a reason for it. Having a very cautious personality myself, I can't begin to fathom what that reason is, but there is one and I think we ought to respect it. To use the usual words --- risk-taking, thrillseeking --- is to vastly oversimplify an incredibly complicated issue, but Ben Roethlisberger needs that thrill. You may not need it, but he does.

I believe that, in almost all cases, the good aspects of our personalities are inextricably tied to the bad ones. I don't understand the exact connection, but there is no doubt in my mind that whatever it is that compels Big Ben to bike without a helmet also plays a crucial role in his being such a great football player. Is it really surprising that a successful football player would be wired in such a way that he has an inner drive to do things that might not be in the best interests of his physical health?

Steeler fans, the choice is not between a helmetless Big Ben and a helmeted one. It's between a helmetless Big Ben and no Big Ben at all. The Big Ben that wins Super Bowls at age 23 is the very same Big Ben as the one who consciously chooses not to wear a helmet when he rides. You could try to separate the two with contractual obligations, but I guarantee that aspect of his personality would manifest itself some other way. It's part of the package.