Can You Be Both a Contract Holdout and a Team Player?

Almost every year in the NFL, there’s at least one elite player who doesn’t report to their team because of contract issues. After holding out for a while, they typically resolve the contract before the season begins, and they go on to help their team that year.

Something different has happened this year. One of the best running backs in the league, Le’Veon Bell, turned down a $70 million offer from his team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, because the guaranteed money in the deal was far less than that of some of the other elite RBs in the league. He then decided not to play for his team until they resolved the issue. The Steelers have now played 6 games this season, and Bell hasn’t appeared in any of them (nor has he practiced with the team).

I can’t relate to Bell’s issue, given monumental amounts of money in play. I can understand that he needs to look after himself and his family, and he has every right to do what he’s doing.

I really struggle, however, with this excerpt from a recent ESPN article about Bell:

What about those who consider Bell a me-first player after all this?

Bell believes that perception is unfortunate, because his love for football and his Steelers teammates was separate from the business side.

Watching Steelers games has been painful for him because of the losses and how Bell, after five years in the system, can detect the offensive plays before they are coming.

“I still want to go out there and win a Super Bowl with the Steelers,” Bell said.

How on earth can Bell claim to be a team player after this holdout? It makes absolutely no sense to me. Again, it makes sense that his actions might be the right thing for him, but I think he should just say it like it is. Be honest and say that you’re putting yourself first.

This whole thing has put me in a weird situation of rooting for the Steelers (a team I’m normally neutral on) to succeed without Bell. No one’s forcing him to play football, but things get really interesting when no one’s asking him to play football.

What do you think about this? Can you be both a contract holdout and a team player?

7 thoughts on “Can You Be Both a Contract Holdout and a Team Player?”

  1. Dorothy contacted me with the following insightful comment:

    I don’t follow NFL football except for the kneeling controversy, so I don’t know anything about Le’Veon Bell except his name and reported playing prowess. But I’m from Pittsburgh, and my Dad was an avid Steelers fan. None of that matters much, though, because what got me on my soapbox is, “One of the best running backs in the league, Le’Veon Bell, turned down a $70 million offer from his team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, because the guaranteed money in the deal was far less than that of some of the other elite RBs in the league.”

    As a woman seeking a job at a topflight research university in the 1950s, I was discriminated against on the basis of my sex and, in the midwest, because I am of Jewish origin. That makes one bridle at being less valued than one’s equally or less qualified counterparts and at lifelong experiences of being talked down to by men, an experience shared by my equally smart female friends. (In exasperation, I recently recounted an example of the latter to a close friend, a top intellectual properties attorney, and asked her if that happened to her. She replied with uncharacteristic vehemence, “All the time! All the time! All the time!”)

    While 70% of NFL players are black , only 9% of managers in the league office are (that’s vs. 13% of Americans overall), and as for team CEOs or presidents—the power positions to which NFL players might logically aspire when their playing days are over—it’s exactly 0%.*

    So, if a top black player, whose race sentenced him to far greater discrimination than I ever experienced—especially during his formative years being raised by a financially strapped single mother—holds out to protest “being paid far less than some other elite RBs” as a symbol of being valued less, it makes sense to me. I regard the larger implications of his statement as explained above, beyond the “me first” attributed to him, as more important than team loyalty.

    *Statistics from

  2. His contract negotiations will serve as leverage and assist other players in their negotiations with team owners. Yes, he’s primarily interested in his contract, but the effects will be much larger. I’m sure he (and other players) realize this.

  3. I’ve thought a lot about this idea since Jamey first posted it. I do want to start by acknowledging that I don’t know what kind of discrimination Le’Veon Bell has faced in his life, and I do agree that, in general, owners get far less flack for looking out for their personal financial interests over players than players do–as Tolles notes, it’s a two way street there.

    I did recently read that Bell has had frequent conversations with James Connor in which he’s offering advice–in that way I DO think he’s helping the team (similarly to how experienced backup QBs often serve as a 2nd QB coach for talented younger QBs).To the point of this article, though, I agree that I can’t possibly see how Bell can claim that he’s helping the team or looking out for the team in any way with a holdout. After reading the quoted material, I’m not sure he’s saying that though. Perhaps he’s stated it more definitely elsewhere, but in this section, it feels like he’s saying, “I desperately want to help the team, but I’m not going to until I get what I’m worth.” Maybe it’s semantic; maybe it’s not.

    On a separate but related note, I feel like I should mention why ownership isn’t including a lot of guaranteed money for Bell in the deal. Bell has played for 5 seasons. In two of those seasons, he’s been suspended to open the year–once for an arrest and once for using banned substances. Use of banned substances carries a 4 game suspension for a first offender, but crucially, it carries a 10 game suspension for another offense–so it’s a big time loss if this were to happen again. Bell also only played 6 games in 2015 (the year of the first suspension) because he also ended the year on IR. Some may say the injury was a fluke, but the fact remains that 40% of his seasons have been marred by suspension and/or injury. I bring this up to note 2 things–first, no two contract negotiations are the same. This is why the Steelers are willing to give Bell lots of money but they’re hesitant to guarantee it. What if he gets that 10 game suspension next year and the Steelers have committed 4 more years of $14 million/year to this guy? Teams absolutely take track record into account as a serious consideration for contract negotiations. No one will argue with his talent when on the field, but we often hear that the greatest ability in sports is availability. This leads to point #2. By limiting the guaranteed money for Bell, the Steelers ARE helping the team win Super Bowls. Sure, they could help themselves this year by giving him more guaranteed money. However, when you’re a perennial playoff contender like the Steelers are, that $14 million can be the difference between a Super Bowl and an early playoff exit (if it’s available for either paying Bell or another player if he’s not on the field/on the team). They’re totally willing to pay Bell that money if he’s on the field, but they’re not going to tie themselves to paying him $14 million each year for 5 years because of his history, and from a team perspective, it seems like the right thing to do. If there were no salary cap, there’d be a case that this would be a different story, but there is, so it’s not. Ownership shouldn’t budge on this one, and I Bell knows it. The reason there’s been so much talk about a trade lately is that the decision would be different for a team that’s farther away from contention or a team that hasn’t already invested big money in a franchise QB and a franchise WR. There are teams replete with cap space. I could go on, but that’s probably enough football talk for now!

    • That’s a brilliant analysis, Trev. I really like your points about Bell’s history and how that relates to guaranteed payments (particularly in terms of the Steeler’s ability to win a Super Bowl). Thanks!


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