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Mark Madden: Don’t blame Le’Veon Bell, blame system

October 2, 2018

Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell carries for a touchdown during the first quarter against the Ravens Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017, at Heinz Field.

Pittsburgh is predictably cheesed off at Le’Veon Bell because he hasn’t yet signed his franchise tender, or shown up.

But if there’s a villain in this drama, it’s not Bell.

It’s the NFL Players Association for agreeing to a CBA that includes a mechanism to keep free agency from being free. The NFLPA cheated Bell.

Other major sports have either/or free agency: When a player’s contract expires, he either stays via a mutually agreed-upon new deal or seeks his fortune elsewhere.

But, in 1993, the NFL CBA instituted the franchise tag: A free agent can be forced to stay with his team via its application.

There is no other word to use besides “forced.” It’s a lucrative form of servitude: Those franchised get a one-year salary equivalent to the average of the top five-paid players at his position or 120 percent of his previous year’s salary, whichever is higher.

But make no mistake, it is servitude. If you get tagged, you have one option regarding employment.

The franchise tag is a hallmark faux pas of pro sports’ least-effective union, sharing that dubious spotlight with contracts that aren’t guaranteed.

This is the second straight year Bell finds himself shackled to Pittsburgh.

Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, Khalil Mack and Aaron Rodgers all got paid. Bell didn’t. That doubtless fuels his frustration.

Bell can’t negotiate a long-term pact with the Steelers (or anybody) until completing 2018. It’s yet another of the franchise tag’s booby traps.

Bell’s only recourse is to not play.

It’s an expensive tactic: Each of Bell’s game checks is worth $855,000. He’s scheduled to make $14.5 million in 2018.

Bell must be signed for the season’s last six games to burn the year and get to free agency. (Or a third franchise tag, which would pay Bell $17.45 million and is thus highly unlikely.) Waiting that long to report would cost Bell hefty cash, but it would protect his body and make him more attractive to suitors next offseason. (Unless Bell gets badly hurt. Then, he’d be badly screwed.)

Would Bell do that? Would he skip the Steelers’ first 10 games?

It’s what James Harrison suggested on Fox Sports. (Did Harrison know something when he said that?) It doesn’t make sense for Bell to merely miss a game or two. If that’s proving a point, I have no idea what that point might be.

If I were Bell, I’d have shown up Monday.

If I were Bell, I’d have taken that five-year, $70 million deal the Steelers offered.

But I can’t criticize Bell’s approach, or him chafing against the restrictions of being tagged. It’s his life, his career.

Yinzers who aren’t burning their Nikes want the Steelers to rescind Bell’s tag, make him a free agent, and go with James Conner as the No. 1 back.

That wouldn’t help Bell, not now. Caps are set. (But all it takes is one team.)

That wouldn’t help the Steelers, either.

Conner is a romantic story because he’s a Pitt kid who’s conquered heavy obstacles, including cancer. But Conner hasn’t proven himself to be a No. 1 back, let alone on a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Conner may have to do as a stop-gap. The Steelers can beat Cleveland on Sunday with Conner starting.

But they can’t win a Super Bowl with Conner starting.

There’s no upside to the Steelers rescinding Bell’s tag. There’s no point to revenge politics. Wait it out.

The Steelers are in chaos, which they almost always are.

Bell is a frequent offender, not least because of his two drug suspensions.

But Bell is doing nothing wrong now. If his holdout continues deep into the season, he’s protecting his body and health in hope of an even bigger payday later. The risk is his.

Give Bell credit for the courage of his convictions. Maybe he’ll get a Nike endorsement.

Ramon Foster says Bell needs to be “all in” on winning a Super Bowl. That’s easy for a guard in decline making $2.675 million to say.

The system forced Bell into this.

Blame the system. Blame free agency that isn’t free.

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