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Who’s really to blame in the Roquan Smith saga?

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As the Smith contract impasses chugs along, the real villain here is the NFL.

2018 NFL Draft Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

We all have an opinion on the Chicago Bears vs. Roquan Smith battle and whichever side you are on doesn’t matter at this point. We have some information but not all of it. On the one hand we have an evil, greedy organization that’s looking to take food off the table of their first round pick. On the other hand, we have a linebacker who is digging his heels in while choosing to wait to play football.

Either side of the aisle has valid arguments. But what most seem to be ignoring is the elephant in the room and how we got to this impasse in the first place. I think that most would agree that the genesis of this contract dispute started with rule changes imposed by the NFL. The new “helmet rule,” which was on full display during the Bears’ Hall of Fame Game last week, seems to be the biggest culprit of the various contract disputes for the 2018 Draft class.

It was first widely reported that the helmet rule was to blame for this Smith stand-off, but we know now that isn’t the whole truth. There is more to this story. But we have already beaten that dead horse, so I want to look at the source of this issue. The problem here is the ability for the NFL to change the rules on a whim, more specifically, the NFL owners.

Every year, the NFL owners get together and propose, debate, and then vote on instituting new rules. Here was the rundown for the 2018 Owners’ Meetings. As anyone who follows me knows, I’m not particularly “pro player” when it comes to disputes. There is a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in place that was agreed upon by the NFL owners and the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), and I believe that the players should abide by the rules they collectively bargained.

This would be similar to any union worker looking for special treatment or benefits that the other 2,165 union members are not receiving. It is commendable to want to change the way things are done, but this isn’t the time or place for that fight. When this fight comes up again after the 2020 season for Smith, please feel free to then lead the charge for a work stoppage. That is how collective bargaining works and many of those 2,165 fellow union members will be in lock-step with you at that time.

Here is the root issue though, the same rules don’t seem to apply for both the owners and the players. One could make the argument that the players are the talent and there is no league without them. Well, that is true to a point but without billionaire owners, these players have nowhere to play. Sure, some might have been stars at other sports—which are also ruled by billionaire owners—but most of them would simply be uber-athletic average Joe’s or Grabowski’s.

So from my perspective, this is a symbiotic relationship where both sides need each other to survive. If that is the case, then why are there two sets of rules for each group? The players need to wait until 2020 to adjust to rules that the owners can change in 2018, and every subsequent year by a simple vote. That doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?

What are the alternatives? The way I see it there are two options moving forward, because I do expect 2021 to be a strike season. It doesn’t seem avoidable.

So, the first option is to severely limit the power of the union to the point where they are responsible for the most basic of functions for the players. The contract negotiations would be the wild west and individual holdouts would be running rampant throughout the NFL. Nobody wants that, it doesn’t help anything.

The other alternative is what I think needs to be added into the next CBA. The owners and players need to be held to the same set of rules. If the owners are going to be allowed to change rules annually—especially ones that are almost assuredly going to lead to suspensions that could void contracts—then the players should be able to amend their contracts on an annual basis to adjust.

The issue with that is you will have 2,166 players trying to alter contract language simultaneously. The better solution to this in my opinion, is that rule changes need to be part of the negotiation process during CBA negotiations. Even rules for player safety need to be done this way unless you can call a special session with all 32 owners and team player representatives—the Bears’ representative is Sam Acho—and the head of the NFLPA DeMaurice Smith. If they can come to an accord, by all means, amend the CBA. But if they can’t, then any rule changes should be tabled until the next CBA negotiations.

Too many are unfortunately innocent bystanders in a fight between the league and its’ players. The Bears and Smith aren’t pawns in this chess match, but they likely aren’t calling the shots from behind the scenes either. It’s a noble endeavor to try and make the world a better place for your cohorts. But at this point, there is no more leverage on Smith’s side and it’s time to end this charade. The attention has been brought to this subject and holding out further does nothing to further the argument.

This is an interesting battle if you look at it from a wholistic viewpoint and not simply poor employee versus greedy employer, or my favorite team versus whiny millionaire player, or even billionaires versus millionaires. There is much more going on here than simply a player looking for a way to misbehave and still make nearly $20 million or an organization trying to take back money that was guaranteed.

If the players want to take a bit of power back and even the playing field, at least as far as contract language is concerned, then they need to fight for it in the CBA. Otherwise, they just appear to be disgruntled, which makes you hard to root for.