The unlikely has now become reality. An NFL player will choose to sit out the entire season, in lieu of accepting the terms offered to him by the team that controls his rights.
That’s ultimately what the franchise tag is. It’s not an honor, as some have tried to describe it in the past. It’s an artificial restriction applied to a player who otherwise would be able to shop his services to the highest bidder. The Steelers twice exercised their right under the Collective Bargaining Agreement to restrict Bell in this way. And Bell has twice exercised his right in response to being subjected to the franchise tag.
Last year, he stayed away until Labor Day, skipping the offseason program, training camp, and the preseason and cashing every check on his way to $12.1 million. This year, he skipped everything, including the full football season. Now, when next year comes, he’ll finally get a chance to shop his services to the highest bidder.
Bell will be blamed for this outcome. By fans, by teammates, by executives, by the media. But Bell is simply making a business decision, no different than the decision to enter the draft, to not enter the draft, to sign with a team, to not sign with a team, to keep playing, to retire. The fact that it’s an unconventional business decision doesn’t change the fact that it is fundamentally a business decision.
And, when it comes to football, everyone seems to be allowed to make business decisions except the men who play football. Because we want them to entertain us. When they choose not to entertain us, we become confused. We feel betrayed. We lose the privilege of witnessing the special things a football player can do on a football field, as it relates to our fan loyalties, our viewing enjoyment, our fantasy-football lineups, our wagering interests.
Bell will be accused of “abandoning his teammates,” an outdated narrative as phony as “football is family.” Football, at the professional level, is only family when characterizing it that way is good for business. Because football, at the professional and college level, is strictly a business.
Everyone else connected to the sport will make, from time to time, business decisions. But the only ones who are widely vilified for any decision (short of an owner relocating a team, which nevertheless seems to be understood in all markets but the one the team leaves) are players who make the business decision to not play.
In Bell’s case, the Steelers opted to prevent him from getting maximum compensation for his services by squatting on his rights beyond the expiration of his contract. Twice. So he did what he had to do in an effort to get the most he could for his skills, abilities, risks, and sacrifices.
Regardless of whether future events make it a good decision or a bad decision, it’s his business decision. And how he handles it is nobody else’s business.