The Le'Veon Bell holdout has taken an ugly turn this afternoon, with some of his teammates—namely the offensive line—criticizing Bell for his continued holdout as the season quickly approaches. Bell remained away from the Steelers facility this week as Pittsburgh prepares for its season opener Sunday against the Cleveland Browns and has refused to sign his franchise tender because he wants a long-term deal.
Steelers officials were hopeful he would show up, but his agent made clear this afternoon that Bell was focused on protecting his long-term viability in a league that chews up and spits out running backs. Several Steelers teammates, including Pittsburgh union rep Ramon Foster, have taken the strange step of openly criticizing Bell, and counting his money.
As Rich Eisen pointed out, that is three-fifths of the Steelers offensive line sandbagging their own running back. And Foster, who represents Pittsburgh players in the NFLPA, is criticizing Bell for wanting to secure more money! From the Steelers billionaire owners! Only in the NFL's twisted, gladiatorial world could this ever make any sense.
Le'Veon Bell also held out of camp last year in hopes of securing a long-term deal, but the Steelers made clear they were not going to do that and he eventually did sign the franchise tender that paid him just over $12 million for the year. This year, the Steelers again used the franchise tag (which would pay him $14 million) on Bell instead of working on a long-term deal, and Bell does not appear inclined to accept it this time. He can still become a free agent in 2019 if he signs it by Week 11, so that would be the latest we'd likely see Bell return.
Bell is in a tough spot, made tougher by his teammates today, because he is running out of time to cash in on his obvious value. The average NFL career is just a tick over 3 years. The average running back career is about 2.5 years. Bell is obviously not average, but he is fast approaching the age where teams simply stop paying running backs. Jamaal Charles, who not long ago was one of the most exciting running backs in the league, is a free agent. Adrian Peterson, a legit superstar, signed a $1 million contract with Washington. They have had injuries, and in Peterson's case, off-field issues, but more than anything their problem is that they are old at a position that values youth.
That's what makes it so discouraging to see teammates and an honest-to-God union rep regurgitate ownership talking points when they know what he's up against, and they know what kind of toll it takes on the body to touch the ball 406 times over the course of one season. The Pittsburgh Steelers are valued at $2.45 billion. As of 2015, owner Art Rooney II alone was worth $1.2 billion. Foster is aligning himself with the Rooneys and pointing out the disparity in pay between himself and Le'Veon Bell, when both salaries are peanuts to the Rooneys.
This is how the NFL wins every labor dispute. Fans, columnists, and radio hosts all want individuals to sacrifice everything for the team. That has always been the case, and always will. Players, too, expect each other to buy into the concept of the team. But to openly criticize a player for demanding nothing more than what he's worth only serves to embolden owners to give less and less. To do so in the name of sacrifice for team and glory is just absurd—a holdout is the only leverage players have when trying to negotiate a contract, it makes absolutely no sense to torpedo that option, especially when it's your own teammate.
Le'Veon Bell is a 26-year-old superstar who had the most touches in the league last year and simply wants to be paid his actual worth at a time when he can still capitalize on his talent. How any player playing in this league could criticize that is a mystery.