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Thinking Out Loud: Le’Veon Bell, Emmitt Smith, and the Franchise Tag

The Steelers and Le’Veon Bell are in a contract dispute. Basically, the Steelers are trying to keep his salary lower, and Bell wants an increase. Bell is in jeopardy of missing the first game of the season.

This situation reminds me of Emmitt Smith holding out before the 1993 season. Smith wanted to be paid similar to what Thurman Thomas made. Otherwise, Smith would have made well below his market value. Jerry Jones refused and Smith missed the first two games of the season. The Cowboys were 0-2 and players like Charles Haley complained publicly that Dallas needed Smith to win.

Jones then ponied up the cash, and the Cowboys reversed their fortune, en route to their second straight Super Bowl win.

Bell makes a trainload more money than Smith made, even after Smith got his shiny new contract. Still, the plot isn’t much different. The Steelers want to pay Bell less than what he thinks he’s worth. Bell wants to make what he feels matches his value to the team.

The undercurrent is the franchise tag, the compromise that originally helped NFL players gain free agency. Remember, NFL players didn’t have full free agency until 1993, nearly 20 years after baseball and basketball players scored it – without having to succumb to a “Franchise Player” stipulation. The rule originated from a comment Broncos owner Pat Bowlen made, fearing that he’d lose John Elway to free agency.

The Bell showdown might be akin to Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally challenging Major League Baseball in the 1970s. Bell’s argument isn’t likely just about money, but the fact that NFL owners can still keep certain players from having full free agency enjoyed in other sports.





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