An arbitrator's ruling on whether Barry Sanders should repay the Detroit Lions $5.5 million of a signing bonus is "irrelevant" to whether the retired running back opts to return to the NFL, his agent said Thursday.
Sanders abruptly retired last July 28, but "it wouldn't surprise me if he decides fairly quickly" perhaps within weeks about whether he returns for the 2000 season, Sanders agent David Ware said.
Sanders and the Lions await arbitrator Sam Kagel's ruling on the team's claim that Sanders must repay $5.5 million of the $11 million signing bonus he got in 1997. He played two years on a six-year contract.
Said Ware: "We believe really strongly that a signing bonus is a signing bonus."
Ware, who said he expects Kagel's binding ruling could come next week, believes that matter's outcome "is irrelevant to his (Sanders') decision about whether or not he's going to play again."
"I don't think it's going to affect it one way or another," Ware said.
Sanders' father, William Sanders, said Thursday night his son told him during a telephone conversation the previous night that "they're going to rule in the next day or two." The elder Sanders said his 30-minute talk with his son included no mentions of such a comeback.
"We talked more about Derrick Thomas than we did about him," William Sanders said from his Wichita, Kan., home, alluding to Tuesday's death of the Kansas City Chief's star linebacker.
"I pray that he comes back," Sanders' father said of his son, who walked away from the game less than 1,500 yards shy of the late Walter Payton's NFL career rushing mark.
"I don't care if he ever breaks the record. I just want to see him play. I miss him. Nobody has a style like his. Like they say, Barry could make a one-yard run exciting."
Asked whether Sanders could return to the Lions, Ware said "I don't think that's likely." Ware said he has heard only indirectly of other teams perhaps interested in Sanders' services only if "they're assured he's going to play."
Lions spokesman Bill Keenist said Thursday night he wouldn't discuss Sanders' arbitration or possible return to football.
"Our position has always been to believe that Barry, until he indicates otherwise, is retired," Keenist said.
Keenist said he has no specifics about when Kagel's binding arbitration ruling might come, other than "it was just expected around the beginning of the free agency" signing period, which begins Friday.
Kagel heard six hours of arguments on the matter Jan. 11 in San Francisco.
Messages left with Lions owner William Clay Ford weren't immediately returned Thursday night.
Sanders' father said his son was on business in Tulsa and unreachable Thursday.
Last week, Lions coch Bobby Ross indicated a willingness to consider trading Sanders, though that still would need Ford's approval.
"I'm not saying flat-out `no,"' The Detroit News quoted Ross as saying then. "I know some people have, but to me, we'd all have to come together."
But on Wednesday, Lions chief operating officer Chuck Schmidt said the Lions have not discussed trading Sanders and "are considering him retired, so there is no reason to talk about trading him."
"As far as we know, he has no desire to play in the NFL," Schmidt said.
Regardless, Ware considered Ross' possible considerations of a trade positive.
"The Lions could trade him. Based on comments that Bobby Ross has made, it appears that they will," Ware said. "I'm assuming he will play. I don't think a team would take (Sanders) if they weren't sure he was coming back."
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