Every major sport has its yearly player saga. The National Basketball Association has shooting guard Jimmy Butler, who demanded a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves and was recently moved to the Philadelphia 76ers. Major League Baseball has outfielder Bryce Harper, who is entering free agency and is demanding a $400 million contract.

The National Football League has Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell.

Unlike Butler and Harper, however, Bell has drawn national media attention without once stepping on the field. He has been criticized for refusing to play for a contending team with a shot at winning a Super Bowl and for leaving $14.5 million on the table by sitting out. Bell has not played one regular season game in 2018 and, as of Tuesday, is ineligible to play this year.

Bell left his $14.5 million franchise tender unsigned by Tuesday’s deadline of 4 p.m. EST. The franchise tender essentially prevents impending free agents from negotiating with other teams and delays long-term negotiations between the player and his team for an additional season. Bell believes that he deserves a long-term deal, which led him to sit out.

“I want to confirm that Le’Veon Bell did not sign his Franchise Tender today and, as a result, he will not be eligible to play football during the 2018 season,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said in a statement posted to Twitter on Tuesday.

Bell’s decision not to sign a franchise tender contradicted earlier reports, which suggested he would sign and finish out the season on the field for the Steelers.

It is unclear what caused Bell’s alleged change of heart, or if he was ever planning on coming back in the first place. However, it is possible that other season-ending injuries around the league — such as Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, who broke his leg and then flipped off his own team’s bench, and wide receiver Dez Bryant, who tore his achilles just two days after signing with the New Orleans Saints — could have reminded Bell of the dangers of playing this season.

Now, Bell will likely enter free agency when the season ends for the first time in his career.

Potential reasons for Bell’s holdout are both pragmatic and idealistic. By not playing at all this season, Bell ensures that he will not suffer an injury that might lower his value in free agency and that he will not endure the significant wear-and-tear he would suffer as a top running back  who averaged around 400 touches per season.

Bell also ensures his chance to negotiate a contract for the first time in his career.

After the expiration of Bell’s rookie contract, the Steelers slapped a franchise tag on Bell when the two parties could not reach an agreement on a new contract. Thus, Bell has never played under a contract that reflects his worth in today’s NFL — he has only played under a rookie contract and franchise tags, which are based on general market value.

Bell’s situation invokes a long history of labor relations disputes both in sports and beyond: It is ludicrous that an NFL player could work for six years without the opportunity to negotiate what he is truly worth — regardless of what that number actually is.

Directing grievances at the Steelers, however, is futile. By simply capitalizing on the terms of their union agreement, they are acting as any for-profit organization would. Expecting a show of good faith from any NFL team is naive at the least. Expecting a show of good faith from a team with a winning record whose replacement talent — in this case, running back James Conner — is playing extraordinarily well is laughable. That the Collective Bargaining Agreement allows teams to use multiple franchise tags in a row is why the Steelers are apathetic towards reaching a contract agreement with Bell, not because the organization itself is committing an injustice.  

Bell probably understands that the Steelers could continue to use their franchise tag on him, which likely factored into his refusal to play — without a union agreement that prevented the Steelers’ behavior, Bell’s talent was his only bargaining chip.

In the long run, however, Bell’s contract saga will not make a difference in NFL labor relations. Bell must approach the NFL Players Association with a list of demands to address during the upcoming 2021 CBA negotiation. In order to avoid current contract disputes in the future, Bell and others should focus efforts on making sure the NFLPA knows exactly what its players want.

Of course, no one can assume Bell’s intentions. Maybe all Bell wants is his own cushy free agent contract, regardless of what happens to any other players who come after him. If Bell and other players actually want to make a difference in their labor rights, they need to start a movement.

Bell’s gamble has obviously drawn media attention and thus prompted questions about NFL franchise tags and the league pay structure as a whole. But if almost any major labor dispute is an indicator, one individual cannot change an entire league’s pay structure. In the future, Bell and others need to organize behind their union.

If Bell negotiates a top NFL contract with a new team this offseason, he will have resolved his personal struggle. But no one — or even two or three — players can make a lasting impact on league-wide labor relations. A lockout organized by the NFLPA, or fierce and unyielding contract negotiations in 2021, are the only ways to win the dispute.

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