Barry Sanders' fans, as well as Barry himself, are scandalized by what they perceive as the Detroit Lions' greed in demanding Sanders return $7.3 million, the portion of the bonus remaining on his last contract.
Barry has retired, sort of. At least he says he's retired, though there is plenty of tread left on his tires.
The Lions, caught by surprise, resigned themselves to life without Barry, but not life without his unearned money. The Detroit management made it clear that, distasteful as it would be, they would sue one of their all-time stars in order to get the cash back. It isn't greed, they say, it's business. If Sanders were allowed to keep the money, $5.5 million of it would count against their salary cap for the 2000 season. They would have no hope of signing a helpful free agent and conceivably could lose another starter because the money wouldn't be there to beat off teams hoping to raid them.
On the other hand, if the Lions get the $7.3 million back they also would get a $1.8 million credit on next year's salary cap, allowing them to venture into the free-agent market themselves and possibly even find a suitable replacement for Sanders.
Sanders' fans argue that Barry meant so much to the Lions through the years that he should be allowed to keep the money as a post-career bonus. The Lions argue that they owe more to their paying customers in trying to rebuild the team in the post-Sanders era than they do to Barry himself.
This reasoning so offends Sanders that he vows when he is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, that he will not enter it as a Detroit Lion, the only pro team for which he has played, but rather as some sort of independent.
There is no such thing as an NFL independent so it isn't clear how Sanders would manage it, yet the mere fact he is thinking in those terms is sad.
The Lions have a track record of botching relations with some of their better players in recent years. Chris Spielman, the all-time gamer, left Detroit with a bad taste when he signed with the Bills in 1996. In my view, Spielman is a sure thing for the Hall. When his day arrives I hope he goes in as a Lion. He had his greatest years with them, played the bulk of his career there and established a bond with Detroit fans.
I'm glad he picked Buffalo when he decided to enter the free-agent market. Being Spielman, his motive for leaving Detroit wasn't money but the hurt he suffered when he felt the Lions' management no longer valued him.
But let's face it. In most cases, free agency is where players go to cash in on reputations they established with their original teams.
I'm an admirer of James Lofton and he was a big part of the Bills' Super Bowl teams, but he was primarily a Green Bay Packer and that's how he should enter the Hall.
When he was enshrined in the Hall last month, Eric Dickerson spoke of how, in the years since he left football, he had renewed and cemented a friendship with John Shaw, the president of the Rams, now in St. Louis and earlier in Dickerson's days with the team in Los Angeles.
"Twelve years ago I was bitter at John as a result of the arguments we had over my contract, which eventually led to my being traded to Indianapolis," said Dickerson, a great back who became an NFL gypsy, later drifting to the Raiders and Atlanta. "When I looked back on it after my playing days were over, I always thought of myself as a Los Angeles Ram and always will."
It isn't confined to football. Reggie Jackson entered the Baseball Hall of Fame as a New York Yankee, mostly on the memory of his three-homer game against the Dodgers in the 1977 World Series, but his signature days were during his first hitch with the great Oakland A's teams of the early '70s, a swashbuckling bunch that won three consecutive World Series.
It isn't confined to halls of fame, either. When I visited Lou Saban in Florida 15 years after he last coached in Buffalo and subsequently touched down with at least that many organizations and schools, his home was full of exclusively Bills memorabilia. Despite all his wanderings, Saban will always be a Bills coach.