At one point in The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s Joker lights a pile of money the size of a bodega on fire. Just as he is about to spark the flame, he looks at the Chechen beside him. “What?” the Joker asks. “I’m only burning my half.”
As the money goes up in flames and the Joker wrests control of Gotham organized crime from the mob, he pulls out his phone.
“It’s not about money,” the Joker says. “It’s about sending a message.”
Le’Veon Bell is the NFL’s Joker, and after sitting out the 2018 season and lighting $14.5 million on fire last year to the utter bewilderment of sports fans (and apoplectic fantasy football owners), he’s finally signed a new contract. Bell parlayed the freedom he so desperately sought into a four-year deal with a $52.5 million base value ($13.25 million per year) with a maximum value of roughly $61 million and $35 million guaranteed, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
In terms of average annual value, the contract is less than the $14 million per year contained in Pittsburgh’s reported five-year, $70 million offer from last offseason. But Bell told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler in October that the $70 million offer was “Monopoly money” because just $17 million of that total was guaranteed. (Antonio Brown had a similar complaint in Pittsburgh.) The Jets contract has more than double what the Steelers offered in guaranteed money, though the deal still does not come close to making up the $14.5 million he lost by sitting out a season in his prime.
Many will point to Bell’s efforts over the past year and call them an abject failure, and Bell himself has been called many things—selfish, stupid, and much worse. If his attempt is viewed solely through the lens of maximizing his career earnings, it was a failure. But if people had listened to what he has said throughout this process (and you don’t have to parse his new rap album to do so), they would know that this has always been about sending a message.
“I’ve made a lot of money, I’m happy where I’m at, I’ve got a good family—I don’t really need to play football,” Bell told Fowler about his contract situation in January 2018. “Right now, I’m just kind of doing it because I love it. Now, I’ve done everything but own a Super Bowl. … I don’t necessarily care about the money aspect of it. I just want to be valued where I’m at. If I am playing this game, I want to set standards for all the other running backs behind me, like Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott, Melvin Gordon, guys like that. I’m a guy they can kind of look at. I feel I can do that. I’m in a position where I can do that, and I’m going to do it.”
Just like the Joker, Bell’s message was about ownership. He told Fowler that the Steelers’ strategy was clear: Because Bell was set to leave in free agency in 2019, he said, the team was content to give him 400 touches, putting him at serious risk for injury. They had no issue squeezing value out of him in 2018 because they were not invested in him beyond that. This was not an abstract concern. He’s averaged 398 touches per 16 games (24.9 per game) since his rookie year in 2013. With his health in the balance, he took control of the situation.
“It sucks having to sit out football,” Bell told Fowler when many—including Bell—still expected he might play in 2018. “I want to play. I want to win games and the playoffs. But I’ve gotta take this stand. Knowing my worth and knowing I can tear a ligament or get surgery at any time, I knew I couldn’t play 16 games with 400 or more touches.”
That sentiment sounds strikingly similar to free-agent safety Earl Thomas’s problems with Seattle that he laid out in The Players’ Tribune last year.
“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 in August. “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.”
Thomas ended his 2018 season by flipping the bird toward the Seahawks sideline as he was carted off with a broken leg in Week 4.
Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari, might be the only person getting ripped over Bell’s decision to skip out on $14.5 million more than the player himself. But Bakari, who gives each of his rookie clients a copy of William Rhoden’s Forty Million Dollar Slaves, told The Undefeated’s Jesse Washington in October that he sees a double standard.
“It’s always interesting to me when players make a hard business stance they are vilified, and deemed to be greedy and irrational and whatever, and there’s a little tinge I think associated with black players doing it,” Bakari said. “It just sounds different when I hear some of the critiques. It feels different. I’m not saying that is definitely the case, but you very rarely hear [the critiques] when the Tom Bradys or Aaron Rodgers of the world take a very hard stance as it relates to their value.”
Bell is not going to make up the $14.5 million he lost. But he had the opportunity to send a message, and he tried, though the message was clearly lost in translation. Still, that’s more than most star NFL players have done, and it’s not clear why so many onlookers are mad. After all, he only burned his half.