I was struggling to think of a topic for my sports medicine newspaper column when my son suggested that I write about Le’Veon Bell and Nick Bosa sitting out of football this season. Maybe he liked the topic because he is a huge college football fan, or because he picked Bell with his first pick in his school’s fantasy football draft. He is right, though. They do represent one of the more polarizing topics in sports this year.
Le’Veon Bell decides to sit out an entire NFL season
Last week Le’Veon Bell declined to sign his franchise tender with the Pittsburgh Steelers, giving up $14.45 million that he would have been paid this season under the tag. Now he can’t play the rest of the season.
Bell wants a long-term contract. The Steelers reportedly offered him a five-year, $70 million contract which would have made him the highest-paid running back in the NFL. The 26-year-old out of Michigan State wants to be paid based on overall productivity, given his proficiency in both the running and passing games.
Reasons Le’Veon Bell might be correct to hold out and skip a year of football
There are two main arguments for Bell holding out. The most obvious is the risk of serious injury. Look no further than Earl Thomas, who played after giving into demands of his Seattle Seahawks to sign him to a long-term contract or trade him before quickly breaking his leg. Or look at Redskins quarterback Alex Smith, who might have suffered a career-ending injury Sunday.
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Risk of season-ending or career-ending injury
Football Outsiders estimates that an NFL player has a nine percent chance of suffering an injury that causes him to miss eight games or more in any given season. Such an injury would kill Bell’s chances at a contract with a large amount of guaranteed money. I believe that even a less serious injury like a meniscus tear or articular cartilage damage in his knee could decrease his value. After all, Bell has a history of injuries – a midfoot sprain, a groin injury and surgery for an MCL/PCL injury of his knee.
NFL running backs have short careers
Plus, running backs tend to have short career lengths. According to Statista, the average NFL running back plays just 2.57 years. Some people argue these numbers are pulled down by players who barely make NFL rosters and leave the league quickly. Still, no position has a shorter lifespan in the NFL than running back.
Bell’s productivity and wear during his Steelers career
The other argument supporting Bell choosing to sit is overall wear and tear. He will enter next season as a 27-year-old with 1229 carries during his Steelers career. Historically, running back productivity declines after 1500 carries and becomes shockingly poor after 1800. Adding several hundred rushes and passing plays by taking the field this season could have led teams to offer him less guaranteed money in his next contract.
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Only guaranteed money matters in NFL contracts
After all, only the guaranteed money in these contracts matters. Business Insider noted that the San Francisco 49ers only paid former University of South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore his $301,000 signing bonus but did not have to pay the two years of salary on his contract. How much could Lattimore have made had he not suffered the multi-ligament knee injury in his final season with the Gamecocks? $50 million? More?
Ohio State’s Nick Bosa decides to leave school and prepare for the NFL Draft
For that reason, college football fans shouldn’t be too surprised by Ohio State’s Nick Bosa deciding not to return to the Buckeyes in order to prepare for the NFL Draft. The junior defensive end had surgery to repair a core muscle injury September 20. Instead of possibly returning to the field for the team’s bowl game or College Football Playoff, Bosa left school to rehab in Los Angeles. Draft experts predict he will be the number one pick in April.
The NFL is a business
In my medical career, I have worked with athletes and teams in six professional sports. The NFL is, by far, the one most run like a business. Right or wrong, a player is a commodity who simply does a job for his team on the field. If he can’t do it because of an injury, the team will bring in someone else who can.
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View from both medical and economics perspectives
I view Bosa’s and Bell’s situations from both medical and economics perspectives, considering supply, demand and incentives.
Running backs like Le’Veon Bell are rare talents. Society pays very well for rare talents. Many movie experts predict Bradley Cooper will win the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in “A Star Is Born.” I don’t hear any criticism about Cooper’s net worth, estimated at over $100 million. And in Bell or Bosa’s case, that money could disappear in a second due to injury.
Sports fans tend to support their teams over the players on those teams
As fans, we don’t look at it that way. Maybe our dads were fans of that pro team or we grew up in that city. Maybe we went to that college or have season tickets. We care more about the teams than the players on those teams and forget that they are people whose careers could end tomorrow.
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the November 21, 2018 issue of The Post and Courier.
Average playing career length in the National Football League (in years). Statista. 2018.
Running the numbers on Le’Veon Bell’s decision not to play in 2018. By Charles LeClaire. USA TODAY Sports. November 16, 2018.
Opinion: Le’Veon Bell Doesn’t Owe the Steelers Anything. By Jason Hall. Newsweek.com. November 13, 2018.
2019 NFL Draft Big Board 1.0: Nick Bosa No. 1, Justin Herbert Top QB at No. 13. By Albert Breer. SI.com. November 15, 2018.
With Earl Thomas’ injury, the end comes for the Legion of Boom. By Brady Henderson. ESPN.com. October 1, 2018.
Running Back Once Destined For A Bright NFL Future Shows How Much College Football Players Are Risking. By Cork Gaines. Business Insider. November 3, 2014.
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