Now that the Cleveland Browns have snapped a losing streak that spanned over a full season and nearly two full calendar years, the time to crown the new most dysfunctional NFL franchise is here. There are many candidates vying for the throne. It would seem hard to outdo the Buffalo Bills, whose prospects for this season are so dim that veteran defensive back Vontae Davis retired during halftime of the team’s second game of the season. There are also the Oakland Raiders, who are a lame duck franchise in their own city and who traded away Khalil Mack, possibly the best defensive player in the game, only to have new head coach Jon Gruden lament that “great pass rushers are hard to find.”
Though those two teams will be lucky to win a combined eight games this season, they will have to settle for silver and bronze when it comes to dysfunction in the NFL. Fittingly, the gold goes to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
At the heart of the problem for the Steelers, who began the season by tying those Cleveland Browns and losing to Kansas City the following week, is a holdout by star running back Le’Veon Bell. Wanting a lucrative long-term contract, Bell refused to accept a $14.5 million franchise tag for one more season with the Steelers. Not only have the Steelers missed Bell’s production on the field, but the prolonged episode appears ready to tear the team’s locker room apart.
There are those who are so pro-player when it comes to contract disputes that they will never draw a line where smart business crosses into petulance. This is becoming the default position among sports media figures, who have been finding new ways of equivocating in favor of Bell quitting on his team since the episode began. Take to Twitter and search Bell’s name, and you will see a sharp divide between this media stance and fans’ opinions. This is a contrast that is central to other issues in the sport such as the National Anthem protests, concussions and player safety.
I have no doubt that political leanings have an impact on these two poles of opinion. But there also exists a fundamental split in how sports are seen by different pockets of society that could explain the Bell controversy and others just as easily as left versus right politics can.
Fans critical of Bell believe that teams are the beating heart of sports. Part of that belief comes from the idea that fans see themselves as an integral arm of a successful sports franchise. The angry online fan tweeting to a player that “I pay your salary” has become a cliché at this point, but it is flatly ignorant to minimize the investment of time and money that fans put into their support. Tickets to tonight’s Steelers’ game against Tampa Bay start at $110 and go up from there. Meanwhile, Bell is not exactly struggling — he’s willing to give up nearly $1 million for each Sunday he stays at home. No Steelers fan thinks they are as valuable to the franchise’s success as Le’Veon Bell, but good luck getting die-hard fans in a blue-collar city to sympathize with a player who thinks $14.5 million isn’t enough.
On the other hand, sports media tend to see individuals as the heart of sports, whether they are coaches or players. Part of this tendency is built into their job description as journalists — star athletes generate the most attention and garner the most clicks. It is also self-serving, to an extent. Many reporters will do whatever it takes to remain in the good graces of star players, including directing harsh criticisms at their fellow reporters who make a consistent effort to ask pointed questions instead of lobbing softballs. They care much less about how blind defense of players like Bell will alienate fans, even though those fans also pay for newspaper subscriptions as well as football tickets.
Bell will mostly likely sit out the entire 2018 season, and the rift developing in the Steelers’ locker room could very well keep them out of the playoffs, despite having no shortage of talent even without him on the field. Such a result would rightly damage Bell’s reputation and turn other teams off from signing him in the offseason. If things get really ugly, Bell could walk away from the sport entirely, a move he has threatened publicly before. Even in this extreme case, because of the different ways team sports are understood, don’t be surprised to hear a chorus of media types claiming that it really was worth it the whole time.
Ben Shumate ’19 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.