By Jason Keidel
Le’Veon Bell is quickly mutating into the type of person the Steelers tend to avoid: a knucklehead.
A few days ago, we learned that Bell — perhaps the most complete running back in the NFL — will be suspended for four games after violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Again. This time it’s for failing to show up for a mandatory drug test.
Bell was already under a jeweler’s eye after getting pinched last year for DUI and marijuana possession. Bell will surely appeal the decision, but there’s increasing doubt among the Steelers and their fans about Bell’s bona-fides as a leader. It seems the very synapses that make him so special on Sundays fail him on Mondays.
We can argue the merits of the NFL’s substance abuse policy all day. Why is it fine for players to guzzle Percocet like Tic Tacs, yet smoking weed is somehow toxic?
Marijuana is increasingly viewed as cool and innocuous, a social lubricant and pungent painkiller that many athletes prefer over the highly addictive alternative — pills. More and more states are legalizing marijuana, and the movement is creeping across the map.
The NFL has long lagged behind social progressions, particularly here. But the rules are the rules. Le’Veon Bell knew he broke them the first time and surely the second time.
It’s particularly maddening because it’s Bell. His brilliance on the field and ebullience away from it make him a natural star, a corporeal billboard for football and the Steelers, who already have big-ticket players in Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown.
Bell is far from Greg Hardy, who makes you wince when he steps on the field. His style, charm and megawatt smile match his liquid grace on the gridiron. He’s one special football player, averaging more yards from scrimmage (119.0) than any player in the league since he was drafted in 2013.
Maybe Big Ben, who knows much about toeing the line between stardom and unemployment, can counsel the young running back. Roethlisberger won a Super Bowl barely very soon he was drafted, then engaged in some dubious behavior. He smashed his motorcycle and had two publicized sex scandals.
Neither landed him in jail, or even handcuffs, but the Steelers let the QB know he was perilously close to losing his job. Since then, he has become a fine citizen, a family man and a two-time Super Bowl champion.
The Steelers are a flagship franchise, as old as almost any club in the league. The Rooney family has owned the Steelers since old man Art founded the then-Pittsburgh Pirates football team in 1933. Though they were a forlorn franchise for decades, the team became the emblem of success in the 1970s, winning more Super Bowls (six) than any other team.
Beyond the bulging trophy case, the Steelers have largely won with nobility, reflecting the hard-hat ethos of its city. While Pittsburgh isn’t really a steel town anymore, with silos belching smoke all over the horizon, it still embraces its blue-collar ethic of its football team.
And it’s easy to love Le’Veon Bell, who has rather rare gifts and fits so naturally into the the club’s coda of developing young talent. Ever since Chuck Noll picked Mean Joe Greene in 1969 and then four Hall of Famers in 1974, the Steelers have feasted on the draft, eschewing the risky and expensive free-agent binges that rarely lead a team to the Super Bowl.
But as good and likable as Bell is, his conduct has a serious bearing on his future. The Steelers have a reputation for treating players like family, and surely they would hate to jettison a prized player like Bell. But all athletes have expiration dates, especially in the NFL, which often lives up to its haunting acronym, ‘Not For Long.’ And Bell his inching toward his expiration date with every mistake.
Another wildly talented running back once decided that marijuana was more important than football. Ricky Williams quit, came back, then quit again and has since hopscotched the globe to find his inner self. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But Bell isn’t as quirky, confused or socially awkward as Williams.
No one forced Le’Veon Bell to play football for a living. And while he cashes those considerable checks, he may want to check himself before he, well, wrecks himself.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.