The Detroit Lions were awarded some but not all
of the money they wanted returned from retired running back Barry Sanders.
An NFL arbitrator ruled Tuesday that Sanders must pay back $1.833 million, or one-sixth of his $11 million signing bonus. For the Lions to get the remaining three years, they'll have to wait and Sanders must stay retired.
The Lions wanted Sanders to return $5.5 million of the bonus he got in 1997. He played two years of a six-year contract before startling the NFL by leaving football on the eve of training camp.
"We are pleased the the ruling supports the principle that a signing bonus is contingent upon a player fully performing the services required under the contract agreement," Harold Henderson, the NFL's executive vice president, said.
Sanders was only 1,458 yards shy of breaking Walter Payton's NFL career record of 16,726 yards.
His agent, David Ware, thinks that more significant than the ruling by arbitrator Sam Kagel was Detroit's signing of running back James Stewart on Monday.
That, Ware said, might prompt the Lions to release Sanders and let him play elsewhere.
Kagel ruled that Sanders owed the Lions only one-sixth of the $11 million bonus he received in 1997 because he's missed only one season so far.
Sanders already has offered to pay back half, or $5.5 million, if the Lions will release him and allow him to play elsewhere.
Chuck Schmidt, the Lions' chief operating officer, said the club already had withheld $1.75 million of the signing bonus from the check they sent Sanders for last season. That means Sanders now owes the team $80,000 to comply with Kagel's ruling.
Unless he returns to football, he will owe $1.83 million on future reporting dates. Sanders hasn't paid back any money.
"We have contended all along that just because you've retired you don't owe the entire amount back," Ware said. "He ruled consistent with our position."
Ware said he would approach the Lions within a few days with the same offer he made last August: repaying $5.5 million in exchange for Sanders' release. But that does not appear likely.
"As we have always maintained, it is our intention to take Barry at his word that he has retired from professional football," Schmidt said.
"We would welcome him back as a Detroit Lion should he voice to us his desire to return to active duty in the NFL. Until then, we will hold him to the conditions put forth by the arbitrator in this case."
The NFL Players Association said the door remains open for Sanders to fulfill his contract.
"We are pleased that the arbitrator limited his award to games missed," union lawyer Richard Berthelsen said. "The Lions were obviously overreacting with their claim since Barry could well come back and play his entire cotract."
But Ware made it clear Sanders would not play with the Lions.
"Barry is retired," Ware said. "As long as the circumstances remain what they are, he will remain retired."
Ware has tried repeatedly to get the Lions to trade their rights to Sanders. He said other teams appear reluctant to discuss Sanders while he is still property of the Lions.
Asked if Sanders would play for Detroit again, Ware said: "No. they have a running back, James Stewart."
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