On the wall in a foyer at NFL Players Association headquarters in Washington is a mural on which a long-ago lineman named Bill Radovich is pictured. Radovich made it to the Pro Bowl in his rookie season, 1938, with the Detroit Lions. Around a three-year stint in the Navy during World War II, he played six more seasons, the penultimate of which was a first-team all-pro performance with the Los Angeles Dons, before retiring after 1947.
Radovich’s career has not been noted by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But years ago, he was imprinted at the players’ union because in 1949 he became the first player to sue the NFL for the right to play for more money and where he wanted, just like most of us who aren’t professional athletes can do.
Someday, maybe, former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell will be embossed next to Radovich in the union’s Dupont Circle office.
After all, what Bell decided to do Tuesday was claim ownership of his destiny rather than allow the NFL or the franchise for which he plays to dictate it for him. Having refused to play all season because he was unable to get terms he liked, Bell didn’t show up at Steelers headquarters to sign a one-year franchise-player contract to play this year. NFL franchise-player contracts pay a predetermined salary based on the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position, or 120 percent of a player’s salary from the previous season. Per league rules, the Steelers’ offer expired at the end of that day. And so did Bell’s last chance to play for anyone this season.
As Radovich did almost 70 years ago, Bell opted to challenge the league to let a club pay him his worth rather than as an expendable, flesh-and-blood cog under the franchise tag again. Had Bell, just 26, blown out a knee and ended his career, his short window to earn NFL millions would have slammed shut, just like that. Employed as a running back, he already was playing the position with the shortest career span — because of injury and wear and tear — in the NFL. Bell protested for long-term salary insurance.
“The average running back is not wildly overpaid,” Michael Roach, a Middle Tennessee State economist who wrote a study on labor market efficiency by position in the NFL, underscored to me Thursday. “[The NFL has] devalued the position.”
So much so that Pro Football Focus this year found that, on average, only kickers and punters get paid less . That has to change. The only way it will is for a player such as Bell to stand against it — and get others to follow.
Roach studied the impact of players missing games and found that offensive talent affected a team’s performance more than defensive talent and that running backs were more valuable for myriad reasons than wide receivers but not as valuable as quarterbacks or linemen. Bell’s performance suggested he hasn’t been relied upon just as a prolific runner but as a prolific receiver, too. When quarterback Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t find a receiver to throw to last season, he often tossed the ball to Bell, who — as we say in sports parlance — turned nothing into something.
As such, Bell was worth more than the one-year deal the Steelers offered. Though it would have paid Bell more than any other running back, it also would have been less than several defensive players, who Roach’s study indicated are less valuable than offensive players.
Last we saw Bell, in 2017, he was handed and caught a football more than any other running back: 406 times for 1,946 yards and 11 touchdowns. He told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler last month: “I want to play. I want to win games and the playoffs. But I’ve got to take this stand. Knowing my worth and knowing I can tear a ligament or get surgery at any time, I knew I couldn’t play 16 games with 400 or more touches.”
At the same age Bell is now, DeMarco Murray in 2014 set a Dallas Cowboys record with 449 touches, including 392 carries. He was at the end of his rookie contract, and the Cowboys let him seek a bigger contract elsewhere. After three more seasons between Philadelphia and Tennessee, having watched his per-carry average dip nearly a yard, Murray called it a career.
“It’s been a long time thinking,” he said, “the last year or two, and physically, mentally and emotionally, I think it’s time for me to hang it up.”
He was 30. In seven seasons, he made $16 million in salary and $9 million in bonuses and incentives. The Cowboys paid him the least and got the most out of him. Bell took a stand to flip that equation.
Somehow, the Steelers have withstood Bell’s absence. After a shaky start, they have reeled off five wins in a row to take control of their division with a 6-2-1 record. Their schedule is about to toughen, though.
“It’s probably good for the Steelers and Bell if they parted ways,” Roach said. “The Steelers’ drop-off with [understudy James] Conner hasn’t been great, so Bell might be more valuable to another team.”
That might explain some of the good-riddance messages from Bell’s teammates. They feel as if they have proved they don’t need him and that what appeared to be broken promises about returning to the team meant he couldn’t be trusted.
One of Bell’s star teammates, wide receiver Antonio Brown, even was reported to have unfollowed Bell on Instagram. But this isn’t really about Bell. His decision wasn’t narcissistic; it could, in fact, prove to be socialistic.
Every NFL player should champion him. Like long-forgotten Bill Radovich, he dared to do what is in the best interest of them all.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.