While the Steelers have been on the practice fields in Latrobe preparing for what they hope is a historic 2017 season, Le’Veon Bell has been spending his time hanging out in a gym, posting videos on the ephemeral social-media platform Snapchat. This is fine.
No, seriously. This is (probably) fine. For now.
Bell is still working out on his own as Steelers training camp enters Week 2, staying away from the team until he signs his exclusive franchise tender. That, in and of itself, is pretty standard practice for a disgruntled player who didn’t get the contract he wanted. But the more that was leaked about the details of what the Steelers offered Bell, the more the people started to turn on him to side — if there are sides at this point in training camp — with the franchise.
Bell has been posting his workouts on Snapchat so fans can see how hard he’s still working even though he’s not in camp with the rest of the Steelers. See, look how strong he seems:
And, see, look how quick his footwork seems:
It’s OK if this seems weird. Bell’s holdout is by no means the first contract dispute in history, but seeing how it’s played out is, well, weird. Bell is on Snapchat dropping highlight videos of him in the gym while his teammates are dropping like flies. Thankfully, rookie running back James Conner’s shoulder injury won’t be serious, but when he was injured last Sunday there was a real concern that the Steelers running back depth chart for the foreseeable is Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis.
Bell has been pretty mum on social media outside of Snapchat, posting only a few tweets in the last two weeks. After tweeting “I guess I just gotta get better” the day the deadline for a new contract passed, Bell posted just one tweet in the next eight days.
Predictably, the comments on that tweet turned to Bell’s contract situation. And that’s not even bad. Things took such a negative turn for the back on Instagram that he deleted everything but his actual account — why give up on more than a million followers by shutting down for good — while still keeping his handle “steelerrb26.”
If that changes … look out.
This is weird, but it will get worked out at some point. Bell is due more than $12 million thanks to the franchise tag this season, and while he wanted a longterm deal comparable to the top offensive players in the game — not just the top running backs — there’s no way a guy who has made less than $4 million in the NFL to this point — Spotrac has his total career earnings around $3.9 million the last four years — it’s impossible to think he’d sit out an entire season instead of cashing in on a deal that’s four times what he’s made in his career.
When word first broke that the Steelers had offered Bell a contract that would pay an average salary of more than $12 million, with $42 million payable over the first three years, many eyebrows around Western Pa. were raised. How could he turn that down?
But those details didn’t come with any info on contract length or terms regarding what money is guaranteed. As Mike Florio at Pro Football Talk explained, the breakdown of the money matters.
Most importantly, how much was fully guaranteed at signing? With a $12.1 million in guaranteed salary for 2017 and the promise of a 20-percent raise for 2018 under the tag, Bell should have been looking for $26.62 million fully guaranteed over the first two years.
Also, what’s the cash flow in year one? By simply saying he’d make $30 million in the first two years, the Steelers adroitly glossed over the key question of whether Bell would make $12.1 million this year, $26.62 million, or something in between that. Absent that detail, there’s no way to know the quality of the deal.
These issues are never easy for fans. Most Americans, whether they support unions or not, usually side with workers over corporations and the rich men who run them. Especially when it comes to hot-button topics like working conditions, benefits or fair pay, no matter which side of the political aisle you align, it’s pretty basic American sentiment to choose the 99 over the one percent; side with the worker over the billionaire.
Except in sports.
In sports, the rich man who owns your favorite sports team isn’t just some billionaire in a penthouse of the tallest building around. He’s the guy who keeps your passion alive. He’s the guy who lets you bleed black and gold. He’s the guy who, at least in Pittsburgh, they put patches on their jerseys for. So while Bell absolutely deserves as much money as the market will give him — it’s one of the great tenets of American capitalism — the NFL is not a free market society. The NFL has collectively lowered the value of running backs as offenses have become more pass-oriented. Bell could be one of the three best players in the game, but because of where he plays on the field, the only way to break the salary structure may be to sit out, if even for a few weeks.
And so despite making less money than players he’s far more valuable than — in the league and, maybe, on the team — there’s an underlying sense of unfaithfulness because he’s not in camp with the rest of the Steelers.
Sure, most NFL players are multi-millionaires, so we’re not talking about iron workers pulling double shifts here. And, yes, Bell has missed a significant amount of time over the last two seasons because of injury or suspension, so the timing of his demands to be the highest-paid back in NFL history seems off. But this is really all the leverage he’s got.
Bell is well within his football rights to skip camp until he signs his franchise tender, and he’s also entitled (perhaps a poor choose of words) to hold out the entire season if he thinks that will get him a better longterm deal. (Note: it won’t.) If he tried that, maybe the Steelers would franchise him again — he’ll cost more than $14 million as a second-year franchised running back — or maybe they’ll be so sick of him they’d just let him go for nothing and he’d get his wish as a free agent. But if he held out an entire year, the market would tank for his talents. He needs to play, and he needs to play well. If he’s betting on himself this season, he’ll need to prove it on the field.
And yet, he’s being selfish. This is a Super Bowl-caliber team, and the last thing a squad with championship aspirations needs is a distraction like this. So says some of the fans.
You know, hasn’t just been the fans. It’s his teammates. As camp opened, Antonio Brown, whose contract this off-season made him the highest-paid receiver in the game, Snapped at his offensive partner, saying, via Penn Live, “Hey, if you guys follow Le’veon tell him ‘Hey get his [butt] going.’ We need that guy. Just tell him to sign the contract right now. If you follow Le’veon Bell, tell Le’Veon Bell I’m looking for him. It’s some bull[crap]. Time to go, bro.”
Brown said after his Snap the duo talked for a few hours, but he wouldn’t give details. One has to guess most of that conversation was Bell saying “what the hell, man” and “what the HELL, man” over and over.
Bell isn’t being selfish. He’s being a realist. Yes, the Steelers offered him the richest contract a running back has ever seen, but if that deal wasn’t guaranteed beyond this season, it’s all for show. If Bell is making $12.1 this year and $26.62 under a potential two-year franchise situation, why would he ever sign a five-year contract with less guaranteed money than that?
And if the Steelers floated the details of his deal to get the fans on their side (effective in most cases), why would Bell show up one day earlier than he has to in preseason camp? NFL players hate the preseason so much they’ve tried for nearly a decade to negotiate the number of glorified scrimmages down. In what world would Bell see the running back situation in Pittsburgh right now and think “I’m going to fly up to camp to help the guys out so I can play in all four preseason games this year!” That wouldn’t be unselfish, it would be stupid.
Terrell Davis is going into the Hall of Fame this weekend after just seven seasons in the NFL. He played in only 78 regular season games in his career, plus another eight playoff games, including two Super Bowls. Nobody counts how many preseason games he played in, because nobody cares.
But Davis played in just 16 games over three seasons after his record-setting 1998 season. In ’97 he rushed for 1,750 yards and a league-best 15 scores, his third season over 1,100 yards and his second over 1,800 yards from scrimmage. He won Super Bowl MVP that season.
Davis got paid the following season, getting an $11 million signing bonus from Denver in 1998, the year he won NFL MVP. But he only made $18.9 million in his career after injuries derailed his success. He never got another contract after that one. The best back in the game since Barry Sanders and it was gone in an instant.
For now, the only thing gone in an instant for Bell are his workout videos. And yet, deleting all his Instagrams was weird. And a distraction. (And probably why he’s sticking to Snapchat for the time being. They disappear on their own.)
But there’s a lesson for Bell to be learned from what Davis went through. What a lot of running backs go through in their careers. Get your money. Get it while you’re the best. And get it guaranteed.
The season is still about a month away. Steelers fans shouldn’t worry, because unlike his here-today-gone-in-a-day social media posts, Bell’s will be sticking around for a while. Whenever he gets to work.