(Image: Detroit Free Press/ Dave Birkett)
Jerry Maguire’s famous quote, “Show me the money,” has perfectly foreshadowed modern sports leagues, specifically the NFL, which continually experience record profits while players routinely reset market values in free agency. However, as agents have become more involved while representing athletes and franchises are committing more money than ever to players; contracts have evolved, leading to numerous types of disputes.
As early retirements in the NFL become more common, signing bonuses in particular, have led to tension between recently retired star players and their former franchises. A signing bonus is money earned by a player for signing his contract and which is paid out within 12-18 months after signing a contract. Moreover, the total signing bonus is prorated against the salary cap for the life of the contract for a maximum of five-seasons.
Generally, NFL franchises have allowed former players to keep signing bonuses after they retire despite having legal avenues to recoup them. However, the Detroit Lions have twice recouped signing bonuses from former star players. Namely, the Lions went to arbitration with former running back Barry Sanders to recoup part of his signing bonus after he retired on the eve of training camp in 1999. A league arbitrator ruled that Sanders had to pay back $5.5 million of his $11 million signing bonus in installments if he stayed retired. This public dispute between Sanders and the Lions lasted until recently when he was brought back as an ambassador for the team. Unfortunately, this contract dispute was discussed almost as much as Sanders’s Hall of Fame Lions career, although many believe to him to be the best running back of all time.
(Image: Associated Press/Donna Carson)
More recently, the Lions doubled down on their handling of the Sanders contract dispute by recouping at least $1 million from Calvin Johnson following his decision to retire at age 30 in March 2016. However, the collective bargaining agreement permitted the Lions to recoup up to $3.2 million from Johnson, which demonstrated the remaining prorated part of his signing bonus from the contract extension he signed in 2012. Moreover, as Michael Rothstein of ESPN reported, “Johnson did not hold a press conference and did not talk to anyone in the media until June 2016 at the camp he runs for kids.” Simply put, the Lions made a star player and fan favorite feel betrayed by the only team he ever played for. Similarly to Sanders, Calvin Johnson put up video-game like numbers during his career in Detroit and was extremely popular among fans, but this did not deter the Lions from recouping their signing bonuses once that production ended.
Unlike the Lions, the Colts made a good faith gesture to their former star, Andrew Luck, who retired on August 24, 2019. Unlike Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson, this retirement was initially reported on Twitter while Luck was on the sideline during a preseason game. At the conclusion of the game, Luck was showered by boos from Colts fans as he walked into the locker room. Subsequently, the Colts reached a settlement with Luck and agreed not to recoup nearly $25 million from Luck. Specifically, the Lions had contractual rights to recoup $12.8 million as a prorated portion of Luck’s signing bonus, and an additional $12 million in roster bonuses.
Whether you think this gesture was good-hearted or a calculated move to keep the door open for a potential return, the Colts set an example of the right way to do business. Surprisingly, in an era where the NFL is more bottom line oriented than ever, the Colts organization treated Luck like family and rewarded a player who sacrificed his mind and body by not attempting to recoup any of his salary or bonuses – even though they the legal right to do so.