While it’s become nearly impossible to keep anything inside the once-insular walls of an NFL locker room in 2018, the subject of a player’s personal finances have remained sacrosanct.
The NFL thrives on a business model that capitalizes on players’ short-term careers and their contracts that reflect the instability. All players are theoretically enemies on the field, but they are unified in the larger push for more financial security in the face of soaring injury rates and a callous structure that encourages the utilization of a younger, cheaper group of cost-controlled labor.
That camaraderie took a massive hit on Wednesday in Pittsburgh after running back Le’Veon Bell decided to continue his impasse and remain away from the team, which he has done all preseason. A seemingly organized front of veteran playerslashed out at their teammate, mentioning specifically the amount of money he’s slated to make under the franchise tag ($14,544,000) and how much money that is in comparison to offensive linemen who “do it for him.” While this feeling permeates every facility in every NFL town, rarely has it been bottled and weaponized so efficiently in front of the assembled press. It was a move they felt necessary to send a message, but one that could end up torching whatever emotional momentum this team had left.
It was only a matter of time until players lashed out, but it’s surprising that it happened here and now, while the Steelers are trying to maximize their remaining window to win it all with three critical but aging offensive superstars. NFL facilities are an impossible workspace. The physicality of the profession blends with the constant anxiety; the need to compare oneself to someone else on myriad levels. The unique bond that can only be created through endless hours spent together working toward a common goal is just as easily challenged when wealth and families get involved, and when people publicize what they feel they deserve.
Head coach Mike Tomlin won’t say it, but he is sandwiched between a rock and a hard place. Unless James Conner can replicate Bell’s efficient running style and unmatched smoothness as an outlet receiver for a stationary pocket passer, the team will struggle to move the football. When Bell returns, it will take a monumental lift for Tomlin to patch this rift and assure his players that Bell is operating at full speed, with everyone’s best interest in mind.
Bell won’t say it either, but he faces a similar uphill climb. In most locker rooms, the position taken by his agent, Adisa Bakari, would be lauded. Bell has been handcuffed by the franchise tag for 2018 and finds himself in a bittersweet situation: Despite a high-end one-year salary, the Steelers will have no interest in monitoring his workload because they are certain Bell will not play in Pittsburgh next season. Bell, in turn, will end up unable to sign more than a speculative, incentive-laden prove-it deal despite hitting the market three years before his 30th birthday because of the tremendous mileage he’s accrued over the past few seasons.
It is a no-win situation all too familiar for NFL teams and players that grind each other into oblivion during these holdouts. Bell’s opportunity to sign a long-term deal—no matter how hollow and ultimately below market it would become—has passed, and his only remaining leverage point involves money coming directly out of his pocket. As one agent (not Bell’s) put it: Other teams are unlikely to pay him regardless. He’ll still be one year older in 2019. He’ll still have had a ton of touches, even if he skips the first half of this season. The idea that he’s somehow pressed the pause button on his body is a little hard to believe. If Bell rides this to the end, he’ll wager more than $8 million in losses against his future earnings.
And the Steelers have little choice but to pray Conner is as good and instinctive as he’s looked in the preseason. They’ve touted him. They’ve insisted he is their guy now. Beyond the code of silence when it comes to teammates’ money, there is no standard operating procedure moving forward once Pandora’s box has been opened. They’ll have to figure that out on the fly.
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