Calvin Johnson: Detroit Lions’ offer shows team ‘not serious’ about mending fences

Detroit Free Press

CANTON, Ohio — Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions remain at odds ahead of Johnson’s enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend, but the team has submitted an official proposal to bring Johnson back into the fold that the legendary receiver has deemed inadequate.

The Lions submitted their proposal to Johnson and his agent, Bus Cook, this spring in hopes of having their dispute resolved before enshrinement weekend.

Johnson has been at odds with the team since he retired following the 2015 season, when he said he was forced to repay a $1.6 million portion of his signing bonus.

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Asked about the Lions’ offer during Hall-of-Fame festivities Friday, Johnson said, “I mean, it wasn’t what I paid back, put it like that.”

“So they’re not serious,” Johnson said. “That’s all.”

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The Lions’ offer is similar in money and nature to one detailed in internal documents Johnson was given prior to receiving the team’s official proposal. The Lions fired the employee who shared those documents with Johnson, a friend of Johnson’s. Johnson said that “didn’t help” the animus between the parties as that person was “trying to help the organization as far as helping me get back into the flow.”

The documents, which were reviewed by the Free Press, detailed a three-year agreement that would pay Johnson $500,000 annually for appearance fees and have the Lions make a one-time payment of $100,000 to Johnson’s charity.

In Year 1 of the deal, Johnson would have been obligated to commit 28 hours to various Lions events, including a five-hour appearance at a game this fall when the team planned to induct his No. 81 jersey in their Pride of the Lions.

Similar to other former players who now work as ambassadors for the team, including Barry Sanders, who had his own post-career contract dispute with the Lions, Johnson’s other obligations under the proposal would have included things like making a training camp appearance, filming a videoboard feature and taking part in VIP and sponsor events.

NFL teams are legally allowed to recoup the prorated portion of a retiring players’ signing bonus, which for Johnson could have amounted to as much as $3.2 million.

Most teams, however, do not pursue signing bonus prorations when players of Johnson’s magnitude retire.

Johnson has made it clear over the years his dispute with the Lions is largely financial. He met new Lions general manager Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell, his one-time teammate, after they were hired earlier this spring, and last year he spoke to the team’s receivers at the behest of then-receivers coach Robert Prince.

“The only way they’re going to get me back is they put that money back in my pocket,” Johnson told the Free Press in 2019. “Nah, you don’t do that. I don’t care what they say. They can put it back, then they can have me back. That’s the bottom line.”

NFL teams are required to get approval from the league for appearance fees paid to former players, to prevent circumventing salary cap rules. The NFL uses an independent firm in the process to help determine a player’s marketability.

In Johnson’s case, the Lions could not give him more than the $1.6 million they required him to repay — and that their initial proposal totaled, before it was reviewed and approved by the league — without also requiring him to make more appearances.

Johnson said he will attend the Lions’ Hall-of-Fame party Sunday in Canton, after his enshrinement speech. Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp and her husband, Steve Hamp, as well as several other team employees are scheduled to attend the party as well.

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He also said Friday he remains open to a reunion with the only NFL team he played for.

“I’m not going to close the door,” he said. “I mean, anything could happen. People can change.”

Lions president Rod Wood declined comment on the team’s ongoing dispute with Johnson and its current proposal, though he, too, said he remains hopeful a reconciliation is in the cards.

“I have nothing but admiration for him as a player and hope that it all works out,” Wood said. “He deserves to be a first ballot Hall-of-Famer and I’m glad others saw it the same way.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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