By Zach Naidu
The entire saga surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers and their All-Pro running back, Le’Veon Bell, has highlighted the ugly reality of the business side of football.
For those unfamiliar with the situation, in July, Bell turned down a four-year, $70 million contract with $33 million guaranteed. As a result, the Steelers placed the franchise tag on Bell for the second consecutive season. The franchise tag pays a player either the average of the top five highest-paid players at their respective position or a 120% pay increase from his previous year’s salary, whichever is higher. Under the tag, Bell was slated to make $14.54 million for one year of service. The problem? Bell did not want to be tethered to the Steelers on a measly one-year deal because he wanted the security of a long-term deal.. Now, Bell has abstained from reporting to the Steelers for the first five weeks of the year and plans to sit out one more in an effort to minimize the possibility of suffering a serious injury and preserve his long-term value.
So where has this left everybody?
Bell has caught flak for this decision, as fans and Steelers players alike have publicly criticized his apparent selfishness and unwillingness to take his big paycheck and report. Meanwhile, the Steelers are off to an uncharacteristic 2-2-1 start, with backup running back James Conner filling in admirably — ranking second overall in touchdowns and seventh in rushing yards among all running backs. Conner’s success in the Steelers system provides even more ammo for those in the anti-Bell corner.
However, when analyzed further it’s quite understandable why Bell has chosen this route. First, Conner’s success shouldn’t take away from Bell’s long track record as a do-it-all running back. Bell led the NFL in rushing attempts a year ago with 321, a healthy margin above Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley who totaled 279. Meanwhile, Gurley signed a four-year, $45 million guaranteed deal this past offseason that could be worth as much as $60 million.
In addition, Bell also finished with 85 receptions, good enough for 10th in the league among all wide receivers. This total is more the likes of Demaryius Thomas and AJ Green, each of whom made more than $8 million last year. All things considered, Bell shouldn’t have been satisfied with a deal that would pay him less than $10 million guaranteed annually when he does the work of an $18 million man according to market value.
Now, there are those who say regardless Bell should take the money because it can be worth as much as $70 million, even more than Gurley’s deal. But Bell’s agent Adisa Bakari explained to ESPN that guaranteed money defines the deal: “These contracts are not fully guaranteed. Le’Veon plays a position that has one of the shortest lifespans in the league. We have to focus on the guarantee. It’s safe to say he’ll get a guarantee [as a free agent] that is more traditional, and he’ll be protected for the balance of his career.” Bell has done far more in his career than Gurley has thus far. While Gurley has the brighter future, Bell still had four quality years remaining at the beginning of this season and was well within reason to desire a comparable or greater payday.
The incessant desire to criticize and chide Bell for not just taking the Steelers money sheds light on a larger issue — one of misunderstanding and envy among analysts, fans and players. Sports analysts and fans obviously feel obligated to weigh in on such a hot topic; however, outside of a few former NFL players, very few people have championed Bell for his decision. However, such harsh criticism of a person for settling for a paycheck below his market value in what will be his only prime earning years of his life seems questionable at best. What player would want to be paid less than what they are worth? By the time Bell turns 30, his market value tanks. Nobody will turn to NFL teams and say, “He was underpaid when he was in his prime, so you should pay him now,” so it would be wise to let the man get his money now.
Le’Veon Bell wants his money. Who are we to tell him how to get it?
Contact Zach Naidu at znaidu ‘at’ stanford.edu