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Le’Veon Bell proves his worth on his terms

The running back got the guaranteed money he was looking for with the Jets

Let’s start with this: Le’Veon Bell no longer wanted to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

We know this because Bell sat out an entire season and figuratively torched $14.5 million, which was the amount he would have earned while playing under the franchise tag in 2018. And once one understands that denying the Steelers his services was paramount in Bell’s calculus, then it’s clear he succeeded Wednesday by agreeing to terms with the New York Jets on a reported four-year, $52.5 million deal that guarantees him $35 million. In 2017, Bell was offered a five-year, $70 million deal by the Steelers, but he said only $17 million was guaranteed. He turned it down. Bell played under the franchise tag at $12.12 million in 2017, took 2018 off to protect his body and then joined the Jets. Combining his 2017 salary with the Jets deal means that Bell will receive $47.12 million guaranteed over six seasons. That’s called winning off the field.

On social media, some NFL observers were quick to point out that Bell will never recoup the money he could have earned last season. It’s also true that every top player wants to be the highest-paid player at his position, and Bell did not break the mark for running backs set by Todd Gurley, who received a four-year, $57.5 million deal with $45 million guaranteed from the Los Angeles Rams last summer.

But at a certain point, Bell determined it was more important for him to bet on himself and deny the Steelers his services in the process, regardless of the outcome. That’s called exercising one’s free will and taking a stand. Well, as much as NFL players can do that within the confines of the collective bargaining agreement.

Historically, professional sports teams have wielded enormous power over players, and that’s no more evident than in the NFL. Unlike in the NBA and MLB, in which contracts are guaranteed both for skill and injury, NFL players don’t have as strong a safety net. The overall contract figures of NFL deals are meaningless. It’s all about the guaranteed portion.

The numbers that were leaked about the Steelers’ supposed offer to Bell have never been publicly confirmed by the organization or Bell’s representatives. For argument’s sake, however, let’s assume the figures are correct. That would mean Bell thought he was worth more than $17 million guaranteed. And that’s his right.

After considering his enormous workload and outstanding production — during the 2016 and 2017 seasons combined, Bell led all NFL running backs with both 742 touches and 3,830 yards from scrimmage — Bell was unwilling to accept what the Steelers were willing to pay. He played under the franchise tag in 2017, and then the Steelers remained on watch weekly last season awaiting Bell’s return, which didn’t occur.

Bell wasn’t free to open contract discussions with other teams. The Steelers controlled his rights, and after they used the tag on him twice, he was done with them. It’s easy to argue that Bell acted unprofessionally and let down his teammates, many of whom expressed anger about his holdout. But here’s the thing: Bell’s only allegiance is to himself.

Fans don’t like to read that. They’d prefer to believe the hype that players are mainly focused on winning championships and all that rah-rah stuff. To be sure, for many players, team goals are important. What’s most important, even for many of the players who blasted Bell, is the ability to maximize their earning potential during a very small window to do so. According to the NFL Players Association, the average career length is about 3.3 years. The NFL claims that the average career is about six years (for players who make a club’s Week 1 roster in their rookie season).

If Bell had signed the one-year deal under the provisions of the franchise tag, with team management knowing he likely would leave after the season, the Steelers wouldn’t have had a vested interest in his long-term future. Talk about a bad position to be in for a running back who had already had such a heavy workload.

Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson has been there. Way back in the mid-1980s, the then-superstar running back became embroiled in a long-running contract dispute with the Los Angeles Rams, who eventually traded Dickerson. Bell did what he had to do, Dickerson said.

“I’ve been right where Le’Veon is,” Dickerson said on the phone. “[Fans will] say you’re a bad guy. They’ll say you’re selfish. They’ll say you’re not a team player. These fans … they love their teams. And I really do understand all of that.

“But you have an obligation to yourself and your family. You only have a short period of time to play. You’ve got to try get it while you can. Le’Veon made the decision he thought was best for him. He made a decision – and he stuck with it.”

The NFL is the most dangerous workplace in team sports. Each time they step on the field, players accept they could leave it because of a career-ending injury. At his age (Bell won’t turn 28 until after the 2019 season) and playing on a one-year deal, why should Bell have risked his future for the Steelers?

Dickerson, too, had an inordinately high workload in his day. He’s still paying the price for it.

“Let me tell you something: When I retired from football, after getting all beaten up, for two years I had to sleep sitting up in a chair. No one knows that,” Dickerson said. “When your career is over, no one is there for you. You have to get all the compensation you can.

“The fans don’t scream and yell when all these owners make all the money. It’s almost like they feel we’re not entitled to it. But we take so many hits. We know what we go through when the game ends. And they don’t pay you when you’re retired.”

Bell didn’t violate the terms of the collective bargaining agreement. This is the system the NFL wants, and it has benefited owners spectacularly. Bell merely used the minimal leverage afforded to players under the process to put his career first.

Don’t hate the player. Hate the game.

I can understand the perspective of fans who are frustrated that Bell said he would return and didn’t. In early October, Bell told my colleague Jeremy Fowler, “I miss football. When I do get back, I plan to give it my all. I still do want to go out there and win a Super Bowl with the Steelers.”

He could have handled that part better. From a public relations standpoint, maintaining his silence would have been the most prudent course.

As contentious as the situation was, though, it wouldn’t be surprising if Bell wanted to stick it to the Steelers a little. That happens. And Steelers fans doing a victory lap about the fact that Bell isn’t the league’s highest-paid running back fail to grasp how much his absence and the whole sideshow hurt the team during a season in which it failed to make the playoffs.

Second-year running back James Conner had a strong season: 1,117 yards rushing, 12 rushing touchdowns, 55 receptions and 497 receiving yards. Perhaps Conner will have a great career. The Steelers, however, understand that superstar players are difference-makers. They will always be left to wonder whether Bell would have done something highlight-worthy to help them reach the postseason. And while the Bell mess wasn’t directly related to wide receiver Antonio Brown’s departure to the Oakland Raiders this week, the Steelers began the season under a cloud that only continued to darken.

Despite the risks, Bell drew a line in the sand and remained true to himself. He got a lot of money, which is great for him. He also determined his own path, which is priceless.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.