Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson deserves major signing bonus from the Lions

By: Jordan Kendall, Senior Staff Writer

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

At halftime of the Detroit Lions week three game against the Baltimore Ravens, 2021 Hall of Fame wide receiver Calvin Johnson received his Hall of Fame ring. This is supposed to be a special moment for the player, the fans, and the organization. However, Johnson’s relationship with the Lions isn’t a positive one. For this week’s column, I’m going to discuss how I would’ve handled this situation.

When Johnson retired in 2016, Detroit made him give back $1.6 million of his signing bonus. Since his retirement was unexpected and he had years remaining on his contract, NFL rules allow the Lions to ask for a percentage of the signing bonus back. Since then, Johnson has said numerous times he wants the money back, but Detroit has refused to give it to him. 

Not only has Detroit refused to give the money back, but they’ve also been greedy enough to try and get him to earn more than he already has. Earlier this year, the Lions offered him $1.5 million over three years for 28 hours of work per year for the team. It also included a $100,000 donation to Johnson’s organization. He declined, and I can’t blame him.

Johnson is the Lions all-time leading receiver with 731 receptions for 11,619 yards and 83 touchdowns. He played for Detroit from 2007-2015 and in that time, the Lions only had two winning seasons. He was the only reason Detroit was somewhat relevant in the NFL. Fans wanted to watch him, they didn’t care about anyone else including quarterback Matthew Stafford. 

If Johnson doesn’t play in Detroit, I think there’s a strong possibility NFL fans outside of Detroit forget the team existed in the late 2000s and early 2010s. His impact on that team far exceeds the $1.6 million the Lions refuse to give him. I believe he’s earned every penny of that money, and he should not have to lift a finger to get it. 

I’ve checked numerous articles, the NFL rulebook, and the NFL collective bargaining agreement (CBA). I can’t find anything that says the Lions can’t give him back the money if they want to. I also find it interesting that a similar situation happened with the Indianapolis Colts, but they didn’t ask for money back. When quarterback Andrew Luck retired suddenly in 2019, the Colts let him keep his signing bonus. 

This isn’t the first time Detroit has done something like this. When Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders retired in 1999, he had to return $1.8 million of his signing bonus. He is arguably the greatest running back of all time, I also think he earned every penny of the bonus and should not have had to return it. 

The Detroit Lions organization has a net worth of $2.4 billion. They’re asking Johnson for $1.6 million. In comparison to what they have financially, the $1.6 million is essentially pocket change. What I don’t understand is this, why is that $1.6 million worth more to your organization than potentially having a good relationship with Johnson? 

I believe Johnson is a top three Lion of all time. I think if they had a good relationship and he showed up to games and community events it would do a lot of good for the franchise. The value he could provide as a team ambassador or a mentor to the players seems much greater than $1.6 million. 

If I were the Lions, I would have given Johnson the money back years ago. I wouldn’t have even asked for it back. He has done so much for the organization and I feel he deserves it. I believe having a good relationship with him is much more valuable than $1.6 million. 

The Lions have never appeared in the Super Bowl and haven’t won a NFL championship since 1957. They only have three playoff appearances since 2010, and all three resulted in wildcard round losses. If this franchise cares about winning, it might not be a bad idea to start with treating your players right. 

Comparing the Lions to an organization that I think is one of the best run in the Ravens, the results speak for themselves. Baltimore seems to treat their players right, which is why several former Ravens are still with the team in some capacity, and why many more frequently come back for games and community appearances. 

The Ravens’ culture also results in success. They have seven playoff appearances since 2010, and they won the Super Bowl in 2013. They’ve been a playoff contender for as long as I’ve been a football fan. The same can’t be said about Detroit. 

I think the Lions need a major cultural rehaul within the organization. They need to start treating players the right way. They need to appreciate what the players do for the team and the community. A great first step would be giving Johnson the money back, and ensuring a situation like this doesn’t happen again.

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