Le’Veon Bell’s Contract Dispute Shows the Limits of Player Solidarity in the NFL

Le’Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on during the first half of the AFC playoff game on Jan. 14 in Pittsburgh.
Le’Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on during the first half of the AFC playoff game on Jan. 14 in Pittsburgh.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

One of the best players in the NFL is going through some workplace drama. Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell wants a new long-term contract, something the team has been unwilling to offer. As a result, Bell skipped training camp, and his absence has carried through this week’s practices and team meetings. Barring a sudden change of heart from either party, Bell will not suit up for the Steelers’ first game, which comes against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

Contract holdouts are nothing new, as they’re one of the few tactics players can use as leverage against ownership. Both last year and this year, the Steelers gave Bell their “franchise tag,” meaning the team can give him a one-year contract that prevents him from pursuing options elsewhere. In 2017, Bell held out until shortly before the start of the season, when he agreed to sign his one-year $12 million franchise deal.

During that last holdout, Bell and his teammates exchanged lighthearted rap battle videos addressing the situation.

This year, Bell has refused to sign another of these one-year deals. By not showing up to practice, games, or team events, Bell is giving up $855,000 a week. Thus far, his teammates have focused more on what they’ve lost than what Bell is giving up. ESPN quotes an anonymous Steelers veteran as saying, “He fucked us.”

“[O]bviously it’s Le’Veon over the Steelers, and we’re the Steelers and we’re going to play as the Steelers,” center Maurkice Pouncey told ESPN. “If you don’t want to be here, it is what it is. Hold out 10 weeks.”

Guard Ramon Foster said, “In the ultimate team sport, we’ve created a league of individuals. … There are so many guys [here] who are sacrificing everything.”

Foster is right about the sacrifice part. In a league where contracts aren’t fully guaranteed and every play is potentially career-ending, players have a huge incentive to stick together against ownership. That’s why it’s so surprising to hear that, in this case, some Steelers are siding with management against their teammate. The franchise tag is the problem, not Bell. It’s an awful rule, one the NFL Players Association should try to get excised from the next collective bargaining agreement. In the meantime, why help the owners by acting as their mouthpieces? And besides, if the Steelers can’t beat the Browns without Bell, maybe they should all sit out for a bit.

In the past, NFL players have more or less pulled in the same direction when it comes to matters of compensation. As the very least, discord about holdouts was kept in-house. As Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins said regarding the Bell hubbub on a recent podcast, “Don’t talk about another man’s money.

“The NFL can make it a lot easier if they come off their high horse and meet with players. Be on the same page with players for once.” Ramon Foster said that, but he wasn’t talking about teams using franchise tags to prevent players from seeking long-term deals. The quote came from 2016, when the NFL wanted to interview Foster’s teammate James Harrison after Harrison was implicated in an Al Jazeera exposé for alleged performance-enhancing drug use. Pouncey, meanwhile, told a reporter that Bell was “selfish” for rejecting a lucrative one-year deal, but it’s hard to find another instance of him speaking ill of someone he’s shared a locker room with.

Due to salary caps and NFL owners’ historic aversion to parting with even the slightest fraction of their pharmaceutical CEO–level earnings, lucrative contracts are treated like lottery winnings. When New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. signed a contract extension worth $95 million, there was a full-out dance party in the locker room. News of Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley’s $60 million deal was met with tweets of congratulations from both teammates and opponents, including Bell.

Gurley’s deal was noteworthy because, in the modern NFL, running backs are thought of as disposable. Once the marquee offensive stars of the league, teams now treat ball-carriers as temp workers. According to the NFLPA, the average career length for a running back is 2.57 years. Organizations have become reluctant to offer these players long-term deals, which is what makes Gurley’s four-year contract so interesting.

Bell is looking for Todd Gurley money, and his stats suggest that if anyone in the league is worth it, he’s the guy. He carried the ball 321 times last season, 34 more than anyone else. It’s like he’s playing two full games more than his peers. He also came in 10th in the league in receptions (this includes wide receivers). It makes sense that his teammates are pissed he’s sitting out; on the field, he makes everyone look really good.

Bell wants a long-term contract to ensure financial stability in the event the Steelers maximize his value, which is to say, run him into the ground. On a one-year deal, the team won’t suffer financially if his workload reduces his long-term effectiveness. Instead, it’s Bell who’ll be taking on all the risk. “Le’Veon has several years ahead of him in football. We know right now his days in Pittsburgh are precarious at best. We also know how he’s been utilized in the past by the Steelers organization,” his agent told NFL Live. “That’s nothing to say negative about the Steelers. They had one of the best players to have ever played this position and they rely on him heavily for the production he can provide, but in doing so, you take away from his future years.”

The use of the past tense here may just be a negotiation tactic, but anything could happen if the Steelers don’t offer Bell a long-term deal. Until then, he either sits out or agrees to run head first into defenses for a full year without any long-term job security. For a back with seemingly unending versatility, his options right now are rather limited.