No one knew how exactly the ugly contract dispute between Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers would be resolved. But few would have guessed that the situation would dissolve as dramatically, and publicly, as this.
The NFL season begins tonight. The Steelers play their opener in a mere three days. And Bell, considered one of the best players in the league today, is nowhere to be found.
Following last season, Pittsburgh used their franchise tag on the star running back for the second-straight season, even as Bell has complained publicly that he deserves a larger contract. What’s not surprising, therefore, is that the negotiations have not gone smoothly. What is surprising is that the talks seemed to have stalled out altogether, and Bell has yet to report to the team.
All indications point to Bell missing not only the team’s season opener against Cleveland on Sunday, but likely several more. On Wednesday, Bell’s agent said that Le’Veon is “going to do the things necessary to protect his value long-term,” and criticized the way in which the Steelers have overworked Bell in the past.
But Wednesday also marked an ugly turning point in the Bell saga, as several fellow Steelers—including the offensive lineman who got paid to block for him—turned on their teammate.
Veteran center Maurice Pouncey, who just last week came to Bell’s defense, called Bell’s actions “selfish” and told the media that “obviously it’s Le’Veon over the Steelers.”
Left guard Ramon Foster was even harsher, saying, “In the ultimate team sport, we’ve created a league of individuals…He’s making seven times what I make and we’re the guys who do it for him.” Foster followed up his comments with an Instagram post which featured Le’Veon’s face photoshopped onto the body of Where’s Waldo.
Contract disputes are nothing new in sports, and especially as NFL players campaign for greater compensation in return for the ever-growing list of health concerns, they’ve become commonplace in football. But teammates publicly ripping into another teammate? Bell has reached a new level of selfishness.
Or has he? To place all the blame on Bell’s shoulders is unfair to say the least. Bell touched the ball 406 times last season, by far the most in the league. There is not a player in the NFL who is as involved in his team’s offense as Bell. And while a $14.5 million franchise tag is nothing to scoff at, we’re talking about the same league in which Odell Beckham Jr. just signed a five-year, $90 million extension with $65 million guaranteed. Yes, OBJ plays at a more highly-valued position, but there’s nothing that says a running back who touches the ball as often as Bell, many of which as a receiver, doesn’t deserve a contract in the same ballpark. And in a league where devastating injuries are a constant threat <like the serious knee injury Bell suffered in 2015> securing a long-term contract as opposed to year-by-year franchise tags is an understandably-high priority.
Bell and his agent are also well aware of what awaits next offseason. The Steelers know that Bell isn’t coming back next year no matter what happens from here, which means they’ll have no problem feeding him another heavy workload. If that sounds petty and exploitative, it’s because it is. As talented as Bell is, and he’s only 26, no team is going to break the bank for a running back with a history of knee surgery and a ton of wear and tear.
With all that said, the longer the dispute drags on, the more blame must shift to Bell. Pittsburgh has yet another strong team this year (Vegas has their odds at 10-1 to win the Super Bowl), and if Bell cares about his teammates and about winning, he should be playing on Sunday. If this was his plan from the get-go, that should’ve been announced to the team. And he’s already accumulated enough mileage to lower his value next season, so he might as well prove that he’s still one of the best in the league—something he can’t do from his couch.
Bell has until Week 10 to report to the Steelers in order to become a free agent after this season. Considering this is his ultimate goal, Pittsburgh (and fantasy owners) can at least take comfort that he’ll be back by then at the latest. In the meantime, James Conner is the starting back while Bell loses about $850,000 per game that he misses, a price he likely sees as a necessary cost of preserving his health.
At this point, Bell’s intentions seem quite clear: he’s done in Pittsburgh, and they know it. The question is whether Bell wants to win and feels an obligation to his teammates to contribute, or whether he views this season as simply a tedious obstacle to get to the light (and the money) at the end of the tunnel. For the NFL’s sake, I’m hoping for the former.