The Detroit Lions had to know this had a chance to come back and look very bad for them. They had to know that asking one of the best players in franchise history to repay some of the money they gave him could look bad.
Heck, their own history told them that.
Sure, they could say it is part of business and part of Calvin Johnson not fulfilling the contract he signed with the team. But in a league where franchises are worth billions of dollars and top-end players are paid millions of dollars, was $320,000 really worth it?
That’s the question the Lions should be asking themselves now. Yes, Detroit was within its right to ask for all or part of the prorated signing bonus back from Johnson when he retired in March 2016, because Johnson had multiple years left on his deal. According to the CBA, the Lions could have required Johnson to repay all of the $3.2 million he still had left in prorated signing bonus. Instead they asked for $320,000. It’s still not clear who within the Lions organization decided to ask Johnson to repay the money.
Contractually, it was legal. But the optics are just terrible.
The $320,000 he repaid wasn’t even going to pay a minimum-level player in the NFL for a season, so it didn’t open up much room on the salary cap. It was a pittance of money for both sides, especially since Johnson made close to $114 million in salary in his career, not including endorsement money from Nike and other partners.
It’s not the first time a franchise has done this, either, as the San Francisco 49ers asked Anthony Davis to repay some of his signing bonus after he retired in 2015.
It was just a decision that made no sense then and continues to make no sense now, particularly since Johnson told the Detroit Free Press that “I didn’t feel like I was treated the way I should have been treated on the way out.” That comes on top of what he told ESPN in December, when he said he wished his tenure with the Lions had “ended a little bit differently.”
Of all the franchises in the NFL, the Lions should understand more than any what it means publicly to recoup money from a star retiring early. The Lions did this with their other clear star, Barry Sanders, when he retired on the eve of training camp in 1999.
Detroit went after part of Sanders’ signing bonus despite his years of service and goodwill for the club, and it resulted in years of bad blood and an eventual lawsuit. It took a long time for the sides to reconcile.
This doesn’t seem to be that -- Johnson indicated no real animosity and since there was an agreed-upon amount, this isn’t heading to the courts or anything -- but it still just looks bad.
And that’s the problem for the Lions, who have done a lot in recent years on the field to engender goodwill after year after year of losing. Detroit has put a competitive team on the field. It has made the playoffs two of the past three seasons.
It has changed the look of its jerseys -- something the fans seem to enjoy -- and recently announced around $100 million in needed upgrades to Ford Field. All of these things are positives.
But it’s like two steps forward, one step back with the Lions, especially when it comes to how the public views them. The Lions should be preparing a news release about honoring one of the greatest players in franchise history. They should retire his jersey and keep him involved as a face of the franchise, an ambassador.
Instead, they get this -- stories about a mildly disgruntled former star who doesn't want to talk about his former employer. And it's something the Lions easily could have avoided.