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Earl Thomas’s Bet on His Health Ended in Heartbreak

The all-world safety’s Seahawks career is likely over after he reportedly fractured his leg on Sunday, and the injury only underscores the meaning behind his contract dispute with the team

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals Photo by Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

As future Hall of Fame safety Earl Thomas entered the final year of his contract this offseason, he wanted a long-term extension with the franchise he had anchored for eight years or a trade to a team that would give him one. On August 2, a week after he was required to report to training camp, Thomas penned a letter in The Players’ Tribune explaining why he had yet to show.

“If you’re risking your body to deliver all of this value to an organization, then you deserve some sort of assurance that the organization will take care of you if you get hurt,” Thomas wrote. “It’s that simple. This isn’t new, and this isn’t complicated. It’s the reason I’m holding out—I want to be able to give my everything, on every play, without any doubt in my mind.”

The exact scenario that Thomas feared unfolded in Sunday’s 20-17 hollow victory over Arizona. Thomas suffered a lower left leg fracture in the third quarter, and now Thomas’s season and his Seattle career appear to be over—though Thomas could be fully healthy again around the Super Bowl, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, should the Seahawks make it that far. Cardinals rookie quarterback Josh Rosen slipped his first career touchdown pass by Thomas, who appeared to injure his leg while breaking on the ball caught by Arizona receiver Chad Williams. Later, as he rode off the field with an air cast on a cart, Thomas appeared to give the Seahawks sideline the middle finger, a gesture possibly aimed at the Seahawks’ front-office decision-makers who refused to give him the long-term security he sought.

It’s heartbreaking to watch Thomas, of all players, suffer a season-ending injury after he so carefully walked the tightrope between preserving his health and continuing to compete for his team ahead of free agency. In that August letter, Thomas asked the Seahawks to either extend him or trade him to a team that would. Seattle did neither. Rather than letting the holdout extend into the season, as then-Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor had in 2015 and Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell has this season, Thomas reported to the team on September 5, the Wednesday before Week 1, and he logged an interception in the team’s season-opening loss to Denver. But that didn’t mark the end of Thomas’s dispute. He showed up to practice but didn’t participate while still playing on Sundays (and collecting his game checks). Instead of holding out, Thomas was holding in.

“I need to make sure my body is 100 and I’m invested in myself,” Thomas said about missing practices after the Seahawks’ Week 3 win over Dallas. “If they was invested in me, I’d be out there practicing, but if I feel like anything—I don’t give a damn if it’s small, I got a headache—I’m not practicing. But I don’t want that to get taken the wrong way. I know I’m going to get fined but that’s just where I’m at with that.”

But Thomas’s play didn’t drop off. Despite the missed practice time leading up to last week’s game against Cowboys, he picked off Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott twice, including a game-sealing interception where he bowed toward the sideline of a team he once directly asked to trade for him. Just seven days later, Thomas’s gesture toward his own sideline is the perfect illustration of how quickly a player’s fortunes can change, even for all-time greats like Thomas.

It’s understandable that the team would hesitate to invest in a safety about to enter his 30s at a time when the market for the position has sharply declined in value. Yet the Seahawks passed on the chance to capture a strong return for Thomas. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Sunday that Seattle had the chance this offseason to trade Thomas to Dallas for a second-round pick, the same price the 49ers paid for Jimmy Garoppolo, but didn’t want to send him to the Cowboys before the teams played in Week 3. Now a similar package will certainly not come. Those defending the Seahawks will point to the injury as justification for why the team was hesitant to invest long-term, which is true but also misses the point. Players now write retirement letters that ask fans to pray for their post-football mental health, as Chancellor did when he retired in July after suffering a career-ending neck injury at Arizona in 2017. Players are putting their bodies and minds on the line for a theoretically lucrative career yet can’t earn any assurances in their prime nor basic health care in retirement.

When a player holds out for a new contract, the wave of vitriol they receive—from fans, from fantasy owners, or, in Bell’s case, from teammates—can be overwhelming. Yet Thomas is the perfect example of how the labor-ownership dynamic in the NFL is fundamentally broken. Thomas, a 29-year-old three-time first-team All-Pro and perhaps the finest defensive back of his generation, now stands to lose millions of dollars on his next contract because of his uncertain health.

“We all know what we’re risking every time we take the field,” Thomas wrote in his letter. “But that Thursday night game [when Chancellor and cornerback Richard Sherman suffered injuries that ended their Seahawks careers] really cemented in my mind the truth—which is that your entire life can change on one play. And when it does, no matter what you’ve accomplished in the past … you can still get cut without even so much as a negotiation. That’s what happened to Sherm. One of the all-time greats. And I know it could happen to me too.”

It looks like Thomas will meet a similar fate—and if it can happen to him, it can happen to anyone. With the current collective bargaining agreement coming to an end after the 2020 season, the question that players—and fans—need to answer is whether that is how it ought to be.