The deadline for the Pittsburgh Steelers to sign All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell to a long-term contract is July 16, and all signs seem to point to a singular eventuality: Monday will come and go without a deal getting done, Bell will play 2018 on the franchise tag, and by the time 2019 rolls around, dat boi gone. Bell seems hellbent on obtaining a contract befitting a top-tier running back — in his defense, he totally is — and a top-tier secondary receiver. This would be unprecedented, record-setting and might precipitate serious discussions about how to aptly compensate running backs, a comparatively marginalized group that has been and currently is criminally underpaid. The Steelers, meanwhile, are a vast enterprise governed by shrewd and discerning businesspersons — which is to say that they’re keenly aware of the various pitfalls that come along with committing millions of guaranteed American dollars to a single player, such as torpedoing the cap and thereby preventing the acquisition or retention of other players.
Bell and the Steelers have been locked in this stalemate for, like, two years, so in some ways, there’s comfort in knowing that we’re T-minus one week away from a resolution, even if said resolution likely involves both sides agreeing to part ways after the 2018 season. There’s a faint glimmer of hope that the participants will come to an agreement that keeps Bell in Pittsburgh for at least the remainder of his prime; Bell has indicated that both sides are “a lot closer” than they were at this time last season, a pronouncement that you may take however you want.
This is the part where I’ll disclose I think the Steelers should just go ahead and pay Bell. Yes, in theory you could reinvest the $17 million or whatever Bell is reportedly asking for elsewhere, but I’m kind of at a loss to understand how constructing a committee backfield from nebulous commodities is more sensible than simply overpaying a guy who you know is gonna produce in myriad ways. The backfield-by-committee strategy absolutely does work, but unless the Steelers know exactly what they’re getting, I think maybe it would behoove them to hang on to a historically-productive and generationally-talented offensive powerhouse while their Super Bowl window is still wide-open. Also, while I don’t claim to be any sort of expert in NFL economics, I assume the Steelers could build some sort of opt-out in Bell’s contract that would significantly reduce the dead money resulting from a release if his game craps the bed.
I digress, though, because the purpose of this blog is not to stan for Le’Veon Bell, but to call specific attention to the gaping aperture that’s emerged between Bell, Steelers fans, the organization, and the local media. If the Steelers don’t sign Bell to a long-term contract before Monday’s 4pm deadline, the 2018 season is going to be awkward and contentious as hell. He’ll skip training camp again (as he’s certainly entitled to do—he has no obligation to risk injury for this organization), which will spur a maelstrom of scorching takes from fans and smarmy media types as well as some very public opprobrium from coaches and veteran teammates. Bell will be treated like a petulant, spoiled child for refusing to accept anything less than what he thinks he’s worth, and in return he will gaslight on social media, posting arcane status updates and writing rap lyrics that explicitly outline his frustrations. He’ll be criticized, harshly, for being anything but brilliant (Twitter, for instance, was an utter cesspool during Pittsburgh’s first three games last season, during which Bell was very notably not quite himself), and any “struggles” will be attributed to his camp absence. Honestly, he’ll probably wind up getting booed at home games.
However, I’m most concerned about the impact this whole ordeal has had on the fan base. Like any team, the Steelers have very distinct contingents within their fanhood, and I’m certainly not naive enough to think Le’Veon Bell demanding a $17 million annual contract was gonna be a unifying moment. But man, this whole thing has been really nasty. Look at some comments on this blog.
Of course, infighting is a standard aspect of sports fandom proceedings, and I understand that after the whole Le’Veon Bell situation resolves itself, we’ll just find something else to complain about. But I can’t remember in my time following the Steelers—and certainly not in my last four years writing about them—any singular saga invoking such divisiveness.
Regardless of what happens with Bell, I hope we all soon can just enjoy watching things unfold and catch a championship parade — or three.