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Tuesday, October 18, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

Steve Kelley

Hamlin attack raises question: Can players be protected?

Seattle Times staff columnist

This wasn't supposed to happen to the Seahawks anymore. Supposedly, they had rid themselves of their off-the-field worries. They had cleaned out the problems. Cut the knuckleheads.

This was a team that had grown up. It was more mature than its recent predecessors. These Seahawks were grown-ups.

There would be no more late-night calls to the coaching staff. No more fights or arrests. This was a team that was focused on doing more than any Seahawks team in 20 years.

But early yesterday morning, the phones rang again and another Seahawk was in danger. Free safety Ken Hamlin had been beaten up outside a Pioneer Square club. He was beaten so badly he suffered damage to his brain.

He remains in intensive care at Harborview Medical Center, listed in serious but stable condition. He has a skull fracture, a small blood clot and bruising of his brain tissue.

Of course, the concern today is for Hamlin's health. The hope is that he will recover fully and return to the game and the gritty position that defines him.

This is real life. This is real serious.

His coaches don't consider Hamlin a knucklehead. Far from it. Already, at 24, he has become a defensive leader. He is popular with his teammates.

He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, surrounded by the wrong people.

These incidents happen too frequently in professional sports. Late at night, testosterone mixes dangerously with alcohol. Athletes are challenged by wannabes looking for trouble, tempers erupt violently, and people get hurt.

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How can players avoid this trouble? How are they supposed to unwind and celebrate after a game without putting themselves and their season in jeopardy? Where are the safe places, and can any place that sells alcohol truly be considered safe?

Football teams spend a lot of money on security. Off-duty police officers travel with the Seahawks and, on nights before games, are stationed outside the hotel elevators.

But the Seahawks' security can't watch over the players 24/7, and early yesterday morning, when Hamlin needed help more than ever, none was around.

After Sunday night's 42-10 cruise past the Houston Texans, Hamlin went up the street from Qwest Field with his girlfriend to relax and celebrate and enjoy the glow of this season's 4-2 beginning.

Hamlin should be allowed to go to a club after a game, shouldn't he? Or should a player's responsibility to his team's success keep him out of clubs during the season? Should he have to celebrate in private?

If the police report is accurate, what was Hamlin doing even thinking about hitting somebody who might have been taunting him? Could he have ignored the taunting and walked away?

At that point was he fighting for his life? Had the situation escalated that quickly? He was brutally beaten. Is there anything the team could have done to keep him safe?

Hamlin is maturing into a very good safety on a defense that seems finally to be figuring it out.

Even though coach Mike Holmgren occasionally has had to tell Hamlin to tone down his on-the-field rhetoric, Hamlin has been a favorite of Holmgren's since his first minicamp in 2003.

His ferocity is infectious. He loves playing football. He loves to hit receivers who dare cross the middle, and he loves the macho taunting that goes with his position, even if it sometimes draws his coach's ire.

This defense was becoming Ken Hamlin's kind of defense.

It was a defense that could put pressure on the quarterback. A defense that was stopping the run. A defense that, can you believe it, could blitz.

After all the mistakes, the bad signings and bad attitudes, this was just beginning to look like the kind of defense that could take the Seahawks places.

Then Hamlin went out to Pioneer Square to celebrate the Seahawks' early success. And now he's in the hospital recovering from a serious beating.

The concern today is for Hamlin's health. But something has to be done to keep players out of harm's way. To protect players from the public and, in some cases, from themselves.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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