One of the biggest stories of the season finally had some closure last week, when Le’Veon Bell missed the deadline to sign his franchise tender. Most news media reported it as “failed to report to the Steelers”. Similarly, the whole story was reported as a holdout, with figures of the money Bell was “losing” for every week he “did not report”. And that’s no accident. Because since the start of the season, there’s been a narrative that Bell has reneged on his commitments to his team, and that has even spilled over to his teammates who have publicly said that he has essentially abandoned them for money. Even Bell sympathisers have framed this as Bell choosing more money from a new employer over less money from his current one. Is that narrative fair? Even more importantly, is it even accurate?
In my opinion, the key to understanding what is going on is that Bell is a free agent, and he has been since the end of last season. Before that, he had signed a one-year deal with the Steelers. Because what is commonly referred to as the “franchise tag” is exactly that, a one-year contract offer. Why is that important? Because Bell was under no obligation whatsoever to report to the Steelers unless he signed his tender. In fact, he could even sign with another team, but that team would have to pay hefty compensation (two first round picks) to the Steelers. So, the first implicit accusation against Bell (that he didn’t honor a commitment) is completely false and the language used by some media (“failing to report”, “forfeiting salary” etc.) contributes to this.
Furthermore, in contract law the intent of the parties matters as much as the actual wording, and sometimes it matters more. In a process that started a couple of years ago, the Steelers, fully aware that running backs become less valuable in the long term the more work they get were planning to give a series of one-year contracts to Bell, run him to the ground, and then replace him with a cheaper option. This is a case of an employer intending to exploit an employee. Is it really so strange the employee wanted no part of it? Contrast the Steelers with Rams, who paid Todd Gurley (admittedly a younger player) long-term. After Gurley set the market, was Bell’s demand for something longer than a one-year contract really unreasonable?
Finally, there the issue of Bell abandoning the team and his teammates. We’re not talking about high school football here. The NFL is a professional sports league, and probably the most cutthroat one at that. Every offseason several teams cut respected veterans who have been great in the locker room and the community because they’ve lost a step, values like camaraderie and team spirit take a backseat to maximizing value for teams, why should players be held to a different standard? I find it truly unfortunate that some of Bell’s teammates spoke out against him. In my opinion he is performing a service to all players, in the years I’ve watched football he is the first player not to ultimately cave to team pressure. He should be lauded for that, and instead he is being portrayed as money-obsessed and a bad teammate and that in my opinion is both false and grossly unfair.