Detroit Lions should pay back Calvin Johnson every penny of his $1.6 million bonus

Detroit Free Press

Carlos Monarrez | Detroit Free Press

I’d like to offer my sincere congratulations to two people.

The first is for former Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson upon his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

The second is for Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp, who finally took matters into her own hands and personally reached out to Johnson last month to begin repairing a broken relationship that never should have needed mending in the first place.

The whole issue — the only issue — during five years of estrangement between one of the NFL’s worst teams for 60 years and one of the NFL’s best receivers in the history of its game, has been money. And not much of it at that. In fact, it’s a relative pittance at $1.6 million, which is a prorated portion of his 2012 signing bonus.

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To you and me, $1.6 million might sound like a lot. But to put it in relative terms for the Lions, a franchise Forbes valued at $2.1 billion last year, Johnson’s bonus works out to about 0.08% of the team’s worth. That’s not eight percent. That’s eight-one-hundredths of one percent.

If you think Johnson didn’t earn that money, let me assure you he did.

He earned it by being a model player and citizen during his nine seasons — the last of which he had to be talked into returning for by his father even though his body was telling him to retire.

He earned it by playing and working harder than any athlete I’ve ever seen. He went from being a kid who was “garbage” and used to be called “butterfingers” in high school to molding himself into one of the most imposing and dominant receivers in league history.

And he did it by destroying his body and leaving little chunks of himself across NFL fields everywhere. When Jim Schwartz was the Lions’ coach, he had to tell Johnson to dial it back in practice because would go full bore and lay out to make sideline catches when he didn’t have to.

He earned it by being the poster child for excellence on a team that didn’t have much of it during his career.

He earned it by selling an untold fortune in merchandise and ticket sales for the Lions.

He earned it by telling the team soon after the 2015 season ended about his intention to retire, thereby giving the Lions plenty of time to prepare for his replacement in free agency and the draft. He didn’t put them in a bind or force their hand. He didn’t retire right before training camp or ask to be traded as his career was winding down. He was loyal to the Lions his entire career.

I’ve heard people argue before that Johnson didn’t earn his bonus because he retired early, that no company should owe an employee his bonus if he leaves early and doesn’t fulfill the entirety of his contract.

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These are people who don’t understand who Johnson was. They don’t understand that he gave everything he had all the time. That he played hurt and even served as a decoy when he didn’t have any business being on the field. These are people who are saying they would have preferred that Johnson take plays off and sit out games in order to prolong his career and satisfy the length of a contract.

Imagine if you were your company’s best and most productive employee during a 20-year career. You were exemplary and were the employee of the year every year. But due to health concerns, you went to your boss and told him you could no longer function in your job and had to retire early. And the first words out of his mouth were, “Did you earn all you bonus?”

Of course, this is exactly what team president Rod Wood told Johnson in early 2016. Wood had only been hired a few months earlier with no experience in the NFL. No one knows if Wood came up with this ill-conceived idea on his own or if he was told by ownership to recoup the bonus.

Most NFL teams don’t try to extract bonus money from their superstars who retire early, and for good reason. It’s a bad look that leads to acrimony. This is how it has felt between Johnson and the Lions for five years. Publicly, it’s been uncomfortable. Privately, I would imagine it’s been worse because the Lions run in Johnson’s family. His wife used to work for the team and his father-in-law, Bruce McNorton, was a Lions draft pick who played in Detroit for all nine of his NFL seasons.

But now the ice is starting to crack. Johnson has said all he wants is for the Lions to repay him the bonus money. He said speaking with Hamp recently as begun the process of reconciliation.

“I know that myself and Sheila Hamp, we’ve had some great conversations recently,” he said Feb. 7 in a conference call. “It’s been good to get to know her and just really just have those face-to-face conversations, so I think that we’re moving in the right direction.”

I hope Johnson knows he’s holding all the cards right now. He’s due to be enshrined Aug. 8 and the Lions would love nothing more than to be part of that celebration. That means Johnson shouldn’t have to work as a “team ambassador” like Barry Sanders, unless he truly wants to sign a contract and make more money through promotional appearances.

Hamp did the right thing and acknowledged Johnson’s importance to the franchise, though she wouldn’t talk about the bonus money and whether it was a mistake to ask for the repayment.

“Well, I’m not going to go into the money issue, but I hope we can repair things with Calvin Johnson,” she said. “He was obviously an amazing player for us. We’re going to continue to reach out to him and hope that we can repair things because I think it’s important that he comes back into the Lions family. We’d love if he could, if he will.”

If Hamp means this, it’s a great step for Lions ownership. I hope she welcomes back Johnson on his terms and nothing more. Just put that money in his pocket and put the past behind you. It’s time.

I’m sure even those fans who harbor a strange grudge against Johnson would be glad to see him return to the team and make an occasional appearance. You can imagine the roar he would get the first time he’s introduced at Ford Field and walks onto the turf wearing his gold jacket.

It’s hard to deny he’s earned it.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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