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Earl Thomas and Le’Veon Bell are leading the way in how NFL players fight for their salaries

Earl Thomas and Le’Veon Bell are leading the way in how NFL players fight for their salaries

“There’s the business side and the ball side,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said when asked about Earl Thomas’ “hold in” — his decision to skip practice because he wants a new contract — during his weekly interview with the local ESPN affiliate. “We’re trying to figure out what’s best.”

For Carroll, and members of the Seahawks front office, that binary view of roster construction might be accurate. There’s the “business side” — the question of budgeting (someone else’s) money — and there’s the “ball side”: wins, and eventually higher profits as a result. From behind their ledger, “business decisions” about which players to sign and cut look relatively black and white. The cost is money, and the benefit is a skilled body.

But with their holdouts and hold-ins, players like Earl Thomas and running back Le’Veon Bell are drawing attention to a gray area. Specifically, the space where the game’s inevitable damage to that body — from standard wear-and-tear to life-altering injuries — has long-term financial and personal consequences.

Bell hasn’t reported to the Steelers facility since the team applied the franchise tag to him earlier this year for the second consecutive season in lieu of solidifying a long-term deal. He’s foregoing nearly a million dollars per game, but avoiding a situation in which the Steelers might try to “get their money’s worth” by giving him a heavy workload at one of the game’s most vulnerable positions, during what would appear to be his last season with the team. “I’m not going out here getting the ball 400 times if I’m not getting what I feel I’m valued at,” he told ESPN in January.

Thomas ended his holdout for a new contract before Week 1, but has been reluctant to participate in practice and team activities any more than is absolutely necessary.

“I need to make sure my body is 100,” he told reporters after last Sunday’s game, presumably alluding to his impending free agency as well as the trade market. “If they were invested in me, I would be out there practicing.”

Even as the financial stakes grow, the physical stakes of football remain almost the same at every level. The X-factor is how much leverage each player feels they have to turn that wear into profit. As top-tier players, Bell and Thomas are showing fans the mental math behind every carry and tackle — the game-to-game reality of how NFL players calculate risk versus reward. At a time when the power imbalance in tackle football has never been more obvious, it’s a pragmatic approach to acknowledging the game’s dangers without either quitting it altogether, or fatalistically accepting its brutality as an inevitable cost of being a “team player.”

The way the football pipeline is set up now, players assume the vast majority of the risk. They are required to bet on themselves through college, finding the situation where they can accrue eye-popping stats and highlight tape while avoiding career-ending injury — while making no money. Then they have to bet on themselves entering the draft: leave early and get paid something sooner without having their college degree, or leave later and maybe get drafted higher and make more (or, in either scenario, not get drafted at all). Once in the league, they can be cut at almost any time.

Succeeding on this path is presented as a question of toughness and grit and loyalty and other, similarly character-defining adjectives. On a team of 53 men, there’s an assumption that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That players need to sacrifice to win, to give the game everything they have or get off the field.

When confronted with the risk of concussion or other long-term injury, some NFL players choose to do the latter. Niners linebacker Chris Borland quit the game in 2015 after playing for one season. “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk,” he told ESPN at the time. Linebacker Joshua Perry retired after two seasons this summer: “I think a lot of guys tend to understand the risks, but not necessarily talk about it because you can’t go into football having reservations,” he said on the Today show.

But taking it on the chin is much more common, even among high school players. “I know that CTE can be a risk, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take,” freshman Florida State offensive guard Christian Meadows told USA Today last year. The paper had asked 40 top high school players how concussion risk factored into their decision to play. “I mean I could take care of my family and make lots of money doing what I love,” Meadows continued. “That’s worth it to me.”

Buccaneers safety Chris Conte, who went viral after being on the receiving end of a vicious stiff arm while playing through a torn PCL last week, long ago made his perspective on these kinds of decisions clear. “I’d rather have the experience of playing and, who knows, die 10, 15 years earlier than not be able to play in the NFL and live a long life,” he told the Denver Post in 2014. He currently has to sit out six weeks because his injury was exacerbated during Monday night’s game.

Jets safety Jamal Adams put it more succinctly in a press conference during training camp last year, where he was asked about a then-just-released study on football and CTE. “We live and breathe it and this is what we’re so passionate about,” he said. “Literally, I would — if I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field. Like, it’s so much sacrifice that we go through as a team and just connecting as one and winning ball games. There’s nothing like the playing the game of football.”

But what place does self-sacrifice at that level have in a business? That’s the question Thomas and Bell pose as they allow fans to watch not just their negotiations with teams, but with themselves. Both have already accepted the game’s inherent risks, and — especially for Bell — sacrificed some of their long-term football viability in service of team success.

“I don’t think it affected the way that I played because I wasn’t necessarily thinking, ‘I don’t want to get hurt, I don’t want to get hurt,’” Bell said earlier this year of playing under his first franchise tag. In 2017 he made 321 rushing attempts, the most in the league, for 1,291 yards. “I was just kind of playing physical. I knew after [the 2017 season] that they had to put me up front. I felt that kind of inspired me.”

As Bell and Thomas negotiate, their cost-benefit equation has a hefty intangible attached: the cost of potential damage to not just their future earnings, but their future well-being. How much money is it worth for Bell to be at the bottom of one more goal-line pile? He’s decided it’s more than $850,000. How much money is it worth for Thomas not to put his pads on in practice? To him, it’s clearly worth more than whatever he’ll be fined by the team.

Other players are weighing in, shedding light on the kinds of discussions that typically stay in the locker room. “For me, I’d give you everything in practice, you would see — the cameras would see — that I am fine, I am healthy,” former Steelers linebacker James Harrison said of Bell during a recent appearance on FS1’s Undisputed. “But come Saturday, ‘Something ain’t right, I can’t play on Sunday.’ Because if I go out here and I mess something up I’m losing a lot of money.”

Adrian Peterson, whose 11 seasons in the league are an anomaly among running backs, agrees with Bell that his productivity on the franchise tag should mean something to a future contract with the Steelers. “He’s like, ‘I have played off the franchise tag that you guys have given me, and you guys still won’t pay me what’s due, what I feel like I am valued,’” he told SI. “I’d be sitting out too.”

Thomas and Bell’s public battles are making NFL players’ constant struggle to get the money they believe they’re worth more granular by putting the actual risks they face every time they play front and center. Rather than simply claiming that they want to earn more money (which clearly, they do), they are — intentionally or not — tapping into increasing public awareness of just how dangerous this game is by being more precise about how and when they are willing to extend themselves, and taking a transactional view of how to cope with football’s brutality in lieu of a romanticized one. It’s a direct challenge of the assumption that grit is enough to make all the other side effects of playing football disappear, and to the notion that playing through pain and putting the team first are intrinsically worthwhile.

Bell and Thomas know that a quarterback will always be perceived as more valuable than a safety or running back because his “mileage,” as it’s so cynically termed, accrues that much more slowly. But these are people, not cars. When they get “dinged-up” or “run out of gas,” it hurts. How much is that worth? As is becoming increasingly obvious, the only people who can answer that question are the players themselves.