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Ziperski: The NFL needs franchise tag reform

Back in January, Steelers star running back Le’Veon Bell claimed that if the Steelers forced him to play under the franchise tag for a second consecutive season (they tagged him for 2017), he would contemplate retirement. And after the Steelers announced this week that they would tag Bell again in 2018, he said that retirement is indeed an option on the table.

Now, I don’t believe for a second that Bell would actually walk away from the game forever. He’s young, healthy and one of the best players in the league; even if he doesn’t sign a long-term deal at exactly the annual average he seeks, he’s still got the potential to earn a boatload of money over the rest of his career. Retirement is simply not a credible threat, and the Steelers know it. Still, they will probably compromise at some point and negotiate something that works out for both sides.

I hope they do, at least. I don’t know what kind of contract Bell is demanding in his private conversations, but if it’s at all reasonable given his age and ability, the Steelers should find a way to get a deal done. In my view, the way they’ve handled his contract situation the past two seasons is incredibly unfair.

The franchise tag was designed to give teams flexibility in negotiating long-term deals with their star players, to provide a short-term solution when neither side could come to an agreement. Teams enjoy getting to keep top talent for at least another year, and players enjoy receiving one of the top salaries at their position. When used correctly, the franchise tag is something that can benefit both sides and buy them time while they try to figure out multi-year plans.

But the Bell case proves that reform is necessary. Nobody ever intended for teams to tag the same player year after year in lieu of coming to an agreement on a long-term contract. I understand that it is desirable to set up a system in which teams have the advantage in retaining their own players; the NBA accomplishes this through Bird Rights and the ability for teams to exceed the salary cap when re-signing their own players, and the NFL’s salary cap helps accomplish that same end. Still, barring some of these built-in advantages, we want free agency to be as close to a market system as possible; at the end of the day, players ought to play where they want to play and be paid what they’re worth to the market.

What the Steelers are doing, then, is profoundly unfair. Although they’re behaving within the rules by tagging Bell in consecutive years, they’re violating the spirit of the law. The NFL should institute some sort of reform such that teams cannot tag the same player multiple years in a row. Otherwise, we run the risk of teams copying what the Steelers have done: reaping all of the reward by retaining stars at below-market prices without taking on any of the risk associated with committing to them for multiple years.

In Bell’s case, he’ll have to tough it out another year and hope he doesn’t get hurt. Hopefully his predicament spurs the NFL to do something about the current rules. If not, it’s not hard to imagine the Steelers tagging Bell yet again a year from now. Unfortunate, yes. But not terribly unlikely. As long as the rules remain the same, teams will take advantage of them and do what’s economical from their own perspective. And there’s nothing the players can do to stop them.

 

Contact Andrew Ziperski at ajzip ‘at’ stanford.edu

 

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