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Earl Thomas, An NFL Cautionary Tale

The exact thing the Seattle Seahawks safety was trying to avoid, was the very thing he couldn't.

by Sean Newell
Oct 1 2018, 3:34pm

Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

After a very contentious offseason, Earl Thomas ended his holdout days before the Seattle Seahawks opened the season in a seething Instagram post saying that the "disrespect has been well noted." Thomas, of course, was trying to negotiate a long-term deal with the Seahawks, one that would likely be his last big payday opportunity. He made no bones about it: he did not want to put his body, his livelihood on the line, without Seattle paying him what he was worth. The Seahawks never budged, and so Thomas came back to the team. Yesterday, in Arizona, Thomas proved himself unfortunately prescient when he broke his leg in the fourth quarter. He is almost surely done for the year.

Absolutely stewing as he was carted off the field, Thomas then took aim at the Seattle bench and flipped them off.

We don't know who exactly he was flipping off, but it's hard to imagine it was directed at any of his teammates. Mostly, it's a return "Fuck You" to the organization that he has played eight years for, won a Super Bowl for, represented at six Pro Bowls, and played to an All-Pro level for three times. In exchange for that production—he was the leader of Seattle's vaunted (and since squandered) Legion of Boom—the franchise gave him a symbolic middle finger this summer when he tried to get paid.

The NFL has a real problem here. Thomas is just one, brutal example of what this game asks of players, and how little they get in return. In recent years, the league has made a big show of making the game safer for players. As it looks to pivot from decades of denial regarding the danger of head injuries, the NFL has dived into the rule book to at the very least give the appearance of caring about player safety.

The funny part is, most players either don't care, or actively hate the way these rules have been enforced. There is no way to make football "safe" without drastically changing the DNA of the game. Players know this. And as we so often hear, they "sign up for it." While that is true, when it is time to "sign up" they often have little leverage to protect themselves financially, while that is literally the only thing teams are doing during the negotiation. This is a sport where gigantic men in armor hurl themselves at each other for three hours each week and most are playing on non-guaranteed contracts. If you asked any player whether he wanted the NFL to make the game safer, or guarantee his entire contract both in terms of length and value, he would take the guarantee every day of the week.

This is why Le'Veon Bell has held out, and continues to hold out. He's not selfish, or not a team player. He is a guy who realizes the only leverage he will ever have to negotiate with a team is his actual presence. His talent is only as good as his health, and by playing this sport without the guarantee of the long-term deal he deserves—the long-term deal that makes risking significant injury/future health problems worth it for him—he would be endangering that leverage every single week.

Earl Thomas knew this, too, but he came back anyway. Unfortunately, the very thing he hoped to avoid, was the very thing he couldn't. It's a bitter end for a great player, and you already know how this is going to play out. Thomas suffered a similar injury to the same leg in 2016. He will be 30 by the time next season starts. He will be coming off a second broken leg, a second season-ending injury, while he tries to negotiate a new contract. He'll be on the downside of his career with the added bonus of now having "injury concerns." He will never get paid what he's been worth. The team, as is almost always the case, got the better of the deal for eight years.

Any player watching what went down in Seattle this summer, and Arizona last night, would do well to remember that when it comes time to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. It could be you next.