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Labriola on when business becomes personal

Ready or not, here it comes:

• It doesn’t matter what I think. Or what the fans think. Or what the media thinks. Or what some former players who are trying to stay relevant by bloviating on social media think. It doesn’t matter. None of those opinions by none of those people make one bit of difference.

• His teammates, now that’s another matter.

• That’s why the ongoing situation with Le’Veon Bell has entered a new, possibly transformative phase.

• It’s worth noting that the tone coming from the Steelers locker room changed dramatically during the 48-hour period from Monday afternoon to Wednesday afternoon, and while in the real world that could be characterized as hypocritical, in the world of professional sports it’s completely understandable.

• Let’s start at the beginning of the week.

• Monday, Sept. 3 was Labor Day, a national holiday everywhere except within the National Football League, where it is the first workday of the first week of the regular season. In Pittsburgh, it’s called a “bonus day,” and things began hopping at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex at 7 a.m. when the players were served breakfast.

• The media arrived early, because in 2017, Labor Day was the day Bell chose to report and sign his franchise tender, and there had been hints throughout this year’s absence that Labor Day again could be when the 2018 version ended.

• When Bell was a no-show, the media naturally asked many of his teammates about it. Their answers came across as cordial and supportive.

• “I don’t think anybody’s sweating about it,” David DeCastro told Dale Lolley. “He hasn’t been here the past month, so we’ll welcome him back with open arms when he gets back here.”

• Maurkice Pouncey told Ray Fittipaldo: “It’s fine. Whenever he gets here, we’ll celebrate with him … It’s fine. He showed up last year at the same time. It’s totally fine, trust me.”

• Then between Monday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon, things changed drastically, and by the time the team’s mid-week practice was over, the storm clouds had formed in the locker room. A lot of things were said, and those will be chronicled here directly, but there also were some gaps in the narrative that were not and still have not been filled.

• But for the same players who were supportive on Monday to become publicly critical on Wednesday, there had to be something that happened or didn’t happen, because it seemed pretty clear there was a sense of betrayal that was loosening their tongues.

• It’s very possible Pouncey provided a clue as to the catalyst for the change in tone when he told Ed Bouchette, “I really thought Wednesday (was the day he’d report), trust me, I really did. After a couple of text messages and knowing Le’Veon as a competitor who wants to be the best in the league … but obviously he proves us all wrong.” And DeCastro echoed that same sentiment with, “I think we’re all disappointed. What’s the expression? We’re stuck with our foot in our mouths. We all thought he’d be here.”

• Some might see it as highly unusual, and even inappropriate, for players to criticize another player for seeking to maximize his annual salary, and in the majority of cases that’s a line usually left uncrossed. But to these players, there always has seemed to be a definitive difference between taking care of your personal business and being there for your teammates at the appropriate time.

• Missing the offseason program, training camp, and four preseason games all falls under the category of collateral damage in the “taking care of your personal business” category, and as such is easily forgiven. But taking care of personal business can morph into selfishness once the games begin to count, because that’s when an individual can be perceived to be abandoning his teammates.

• And the “abandoning his teammates” viewpoint is especially pertinent in Bell’s case because there can be no more negotiating. According to the CBA, players under the franchise tag must have long-term contracts negotiated and signed by a certain date, and that date passed long ago. The 2018 deadline for such a long-term contract was July 16, and that was when Bell turned down a proposal worth a reported $70 million over five years.

• So at this point – and at the time of Wednesday’s airing of the grievances – Bell’s options are to play for $14.5 million this season or not to play, which is a reality so many of the talking heads cannot seem to grasp. The negotiating phase ended with the Steelers making what they saw as their best offer and Bell’s declining to accept, which is perfectly fine, but now that phase is over because the Collective Bargaining Agreement says it is.

• Thinking that the Steelers would sweeten that $14.5 million pot is delusional; complaining that NFL player contracts are not fully guaranteed is an issue to be taken up with the NFLPA, as is any dissatisfaction with the parameters of the “franchise player” provision; and that whole needing first to know how he would be used before reporting narrative – apparently as some kind of hedge against an injury negatively impacting future earnings – potentially would be even more infuriating to teammates than staying away, as in “Le’Veon’s body is more important than mine?”

• Should the Steelers cave to Bell’s parameters about how he is to be utilized, maybe Antonio Brown decides he doesn’t want to run any routes over the middle, and Joe Haden says he’ll cover receivers but coming up to make tackles on running backs is too hazardous, and Ben Roethlisberger sees third-and-long situations as too perilous for his 36-year-old knees.

• It’s professional football. Yes, it’s dangerous, but Bell is a 26-year-old man who has the freedom of choice to select another occupation. Professional football also is a team sport. As a team sport, there are going to be teammates, and any individual in a team sport would be wise to remember that.

• “Football is one of the most ultimate team sports,” Ramon Foster told Mike Prisuta for a story that appeared on Steelers.com. “‘Pounce’ gave him a ‘we welcome you back’ the other day and still no-show. For the guys who block for him up front, that’s kinda disheartening a little bit. This day and age, with everybody as selfish as they want to be, the ultimate team sport has turned into a little bit of an individual race.”

• Said Pouncey to Prisuta, ““At this point, man, honestly, it’s just a little selfish. I’m kinda (ticked) off right now. “It (stinks) that he’s not here. At this point, go ahead and miss 10. At this point, it’s cool, (James) Conner’s ready, he’s been here busting his butt. A football team ain’t defined off one person. This is a team unit, and that’s how we play ball, and that’s how we’re going to go forward with it.”

• It’s also worth understanding that Pouncey was voted a team captain earlier in the week for the second time in his career, that he defended the organization when James Harrison took some shots after being released last year and signed with New England, and that after he said definitively that the players would stand for the national anthem that is exactly what happened. And Foster, in addition to being the player rep, is one of the most loved and respected guys in that locker room.

• “At this point, it’s bigger than business,” Pouncey told Prisuta. “Now, when it’s game time and you know that you have $14 million (guaranteed after signing the tender) looming out there and you’re still not here and your team really wants you here … at this point, we got Conner. I get it, you’re a little mad they didn’t get things done. All of us at some point would be hurt in that situation. But now that it’s game day, we have a game this Sunday, now we’re all the way into the game plan as a Wednesday practice goes and you’re still not here, then it’s bigger than business.”

• Then it’s personal.

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