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League and team officials confirmed for ESPN.com on Tuesday night that the Steelers last year sent a letter to Roethlisberger's representatives stating their concerns and the possibility his contract could be affected if he was injured while riding a motorcycle. Agent Leigh Steinberg confirmed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the Steelers sent such a letter.
It is believed the letter was intended to serve dual purposes: To apprise Roethlisberger in writing of the team's stance on what it considered a perilous activity, and to place the club on more solid legal footing were the Steelers forced to try to recover prorated signing bonus money or even base salaries if the quarterback failed to fulfill his contract because of a motorcycle-related injury.
The contract Roethlisberger signed as the Steelers' first-round choice in the 2004 draft does not include language which specifically precludes the quarterback from riding a motorcycle. But the standard NFL contract, in general terms, prohibits players from engaging in off-field activities that pose "a significant risk of personal injury."
In the wake of a motorcycle accident last spring that sidelined Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow for the entire season with a serious knee injury, Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher cautioned his quarterback about riding a motorcycle, especially without a helmet. Roethlisberger said, however, that the activity alleviated stress and emphasized that he was a careful operator, and that he typically rode in groups.
Winslow's contract did stipulate he could not ride motorcycles, and his injury cost him millions of dollars in bonuses the team withheld and in incentives that he could not earn because of his inactivity.
The situation with Roethlisberger will likely be moot if he does not miss significant time with the facial injuries he suffered in Monday's accident. Steelers officials believe even more strongly now that Roethlisberger, who last season became the youngest quarterback in NFL history to lead his team to a Super Bowl victory, will be sufficiently recovered in time to participate in most of training camp and to play in the season opener.
Even if Roethlisberger were sidelined for a prolonged period, it is not certain the Steelers, who have a long history of taking care of their players under the ownership of the Rooney family, would have attempted to recoup a prorated share of his signing bonus. The letter, however, might have provided more leverage in an arbitration action, had Roethlisberger defaulted on the contract.
In the wake of the Roethlisberger accident, some league teams are likely to become more specific in contractually forbidding players from engaging in certain activities.
Buffalo Bills safety Troy Vincent, the president of the NFL Players Association, said Tuesday that the union does not oppose teams using such specific language but noted it should be done on a case-by-case basis.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.