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Le’Veon Bell is smarter than you think

The Steelers running back made a wise decision not to play this season

PITTSBURGH — Le’Veon Bell is a superstar because he is patient. Rather than cannonball through the line of scrimmage, the best running back in football hangs back, waits for the right opportunity, then rolls through the opening.

This is what Bell is doing with his unprecedented contract holdout. By skipping an entire season to pursue guaranteed millions, Bell is simply waiting an extra year to bag his money. And on an emotional level, in a league torn by issues of race and freedom of expression, he’s also a young black man declaring his independence from a white-run system designed to use up players and spit them out.

Bell did not report to the Pittsburgh Steelers by Tuesday’s 4 p.m. deadline, which means he can’t play this year, forfeits his entire salary of $14.5 million and will probably never suit up for Pittsburgh again. Bell wanted a contract that would guarantee his salary for more than one season, but the Steelers refused. Bell also wanted to be paid more than the going rate for top running backs because he’s a productive receiver. He ultimately turned down a five-year, $70 million offer with what Bell said was $17 million guaranteed.

Bell’s strategy does carry some financial risk, and with Pittsburgh playing lights-out football right now, he could miss out on a Super Bowl. He’s been flamed by fans who can’t comprehend passing up that much money. Around the league, indignant front offices have been anonymously leaking that Bell is making a foolish gamble. The Steelers faithful feel jilted, perhaps for good reason.

But for those who root for players over owners, blue-collar over management and the Avengers to bounce back against Thanos, Bell’s move should be cause for celebration.

Let’s debunk what the colonizers are saying:

LE’VEON BURNED $14.5 MILLION HE WILL NEVER GET BACK: He will get it back next season. Running backs are one of the most perishable commodities in sports because they wear down under the grind of toting the ball 300 times per season. But Bell, 26, put zero miles on his odometer this season. His minimum value has been established by other players’ deals this year. For Bell not to recoup the money he declined this season is as unlikely as Antonio Brown staying off social media.

YEAH, BUT HE WON’T GET THE BIG GUARANTEED MONEY: One NFL insider predicts Bell will get $30 million guaranteed as part of a four-year, $60 million deal. Last summer, after Bell and the Steelers were unable to come to terms, the Los Angeles Rams gave star running back Todd Gurley a guaranteed $45 million. David Johnson of the Arizona Cardinals got $30 million guaranteed. Those deals reset the market in a way that will help Bell get the money he believes he deserves.

After congratulating Gurley on Twitter, Bell tweeted, “lol and ppl thought I was trippin?”

BELL HURT HIS VALUE BY NOT PLAYING: Some teams may think he has a bad attitude or may not want to reward what they see as a dangerous precedent. But all teams? Highly unlikely, especially for a game-changer whose 128.9 yards from scrimmage per game the past five seasons is the best since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. Bell is a special talent. Some argue that sitting out a year leaves players out of shape and rusty. But the struggling New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Houston Texans would probably pay to find out what Bell can do.


HE WON’T GET MORE THAN THE STEELERS OFFERED: So what? He still gets paid, just a year later. It’s refreshing to see a young athlete saving enough money — Bell has earned $16 million in his career so far — to live without income for a year. Many of the contract standoffs between players and teams, or unions and leagues, come down to the fact that players can’t afford to miss too many paychecks. The monthly minimum on Maybachs and mansions is steep. Bell seems unfazed.

BELL’S VALUE IS HURT BECAUSE HIS REPLACEMENT IS BALLING OUT: James Conner has put up Bell-ish numbers this season as Pittsburgh’s main ball carrier. Is Bell really that good, or is it the offense? Bell’s fellow players think it’s Bell — they voted him the best running back and fifth-best player in the league this summer.

ENOUGH ALREADY! I JUST DON’T LIKE HOW THIS LOOKS: There is another perspective. In today’s NFL, with owners flexing their control over players in the lingering stalemate over racial justice protests, a young brother is challenging the NFL power structure. I applaud Bell for demonstrating that he is not willing to play for less than what he believes, quite reasonably, he is worth.

Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, gives all his players a copy of William C. Rhoden’s Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. The book argues that black athletes, despite their high salaries, are trapped on metaphorical plantations. On Tuesday, Bell became a runaway $40 million slave. I’m rooting for him to reach the Promised Land.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.