A reason to rally
Matt Forte's contract dispute could be a unifier for the Bears' locker room
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- They realize they're asking a lot. Expecting a fan to sympathize with a pro athlete for his issues with management these days is a little like Kim Kardashian asking you to feel sorry for her pending divorce.
But what's right is right. And though Matt Forte, his children, his children's children and perhaps further down the line will experience the benefits of his salary right now with the Bears even if the team applies the dreaded franchise tag, there has been a veritable wellspring of support for Forte from teammates, fans, even opponents.
We've heard it all before but it bears repeating. Their talent ranks them among the top fraction of their profession, but football players, like all athletes, have a limited window of opportunity during which to earn as much as they can. And in the meantime, a real risk of injury hangs over them.
It is why Forte, despite the fact that he will earn a projected $7.71 million in 2012 with a franchise tag, and in the $9 million neighborhood for 2013 if the team decides to tag him again, would rather have a long-term deal he is allowed to negotiate himself. That way, when he does negotiate with his new team in 2014, and you can bet that he will not be back with the Bears, he is not taking the chance that an injury will significantly lower his value in probably the last deal of his career.
"In his case, an NFL running back doesn't have a huge [career] span and you're taking shots all the time," said Bears teammate Anthony Adams. "Whether you see them or you don't, guys are coming from the blind side all the time."
The Bears' locker room, despite the team's 4-3 record and a victory against Tampa Bay in Week 7 (the team's most recent game), isn't an especially rah-rah venue after a somewhat tumultuous bye week. Not with the Forte situation ongoing and not with veteran safety Chris Harris getting abruptly released.
Football is the only one of the four major sports in which player contracts are not guaranteed if they are cut. Harris, luckily, was able to catch on with the Detroit Lions. The move, nonetheless, sent a cold shudder through the Bears' roster. That move, coupled with Forte's scenario, reinforces the idea that the only people the Bears can count on within the organization are their teammates.
"I play for myself and my teammates and my family," Forte said Tuesday when asked if this season has been an education for him. "I learned that it really is a business and that they really don't care about your personal life or anything like that. It's the National Football League and these organizations are in a business. That's the bad part about it."
Adams said after nine years in the league, he has pretty much seen it all.
"Some of the most shrewd business moves as far as releasing guys or making guys inactive, I don't want to say it's heartless because I feel like they're trying to do what they feel is best for the team ... but I've seen guys get traded or released at a game. Like after they go out for warm-ups, it's like, 'Hey, wait a second there.'"
Adams said it is harder on the younger players to witness.
"The young guys see a guy of Chris' stature get released, a guy who is basically our second quarterback on defense, and it's like wow, you don't see that coming and it's like, 'I'm a young guy, that same thing can happen to me.' Just stick around and you'll start seeing stuff."
Chris Conte, the rookie safety whose solid performance essentially made it possible for the Bears to cut Harris, has seen it and it has admittedly made him, like most young players, expect the worst.
"It really is a business and you can't be too attached to anything because you know at any point it can be done," he said. "So you just try to live in the moment, enjoy it and the people around you, and know that one day you may be somewhere else and you have to adjust to that."
If there was any illusion that he might build the same sort of relationships he did with his college teammates, it's now gone.
"It's not college at all," Conte said. "As much as the guys are great on the team, you don't have the same bond where you come in with a draft class and you're like, 'I'm going to be with these guys for four years.' ... It's just not the same."
Still, he tries to make connections and he has figured out the alternative.
"You try to [form] some sort of bond because that's important to football," he said. "The chemistry in the locker room helps out a team so much and is vital and you have to find a way to develop that. I think having a continuity on the field with guys like [Brian] Urlacher and [Lance] Briggs, you can have different supporting players but you have to have those guys that hold down the anchor and make that the personality of the team."
As he watches the Forte situation unfold, Conte said he would like to think it's all business. "It's almost better to think that way and not that it's anything personal."
Nothing personal. Kind of a fitting description for the Bears right now. Also a reminder the next time we want to question the motives of a professional athlete who says he plays for the other guys in the room.
"A lot of us have been in similar situations," Adams said, "and you've got to have each others' back because sometimes you're down in the dumps and you feel like you're doing everything you can possibly do and you wonder, 'How come we're not seeing eye to eye. How come they can't see what I see?' It's frustrating."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
CHICAGO TOP STORIES
- Photo File Chicago Bears Matt Forte Framed Photo