Updated: Sep 22
If you know football, you know about Calvin Johnson. The most dominant receiver of his era racking up 11,000 yards and 83 touchdowns in 135 games and a 2021 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Much like fellow Detroit Lions legend Barry Sanders, Johnson decided to retire early, still in his prime, in order to preserve his body and mind. Throughout his 9 year career, Johnson suffered an estimated nine concussions, an injury to his foot, ankle, both knees, and a gruesome finger injury that required surgery after he retired. When asked about his concussions, Johnson said he got used to them, “bam, hit the ground real hard. I’m seeing stars; I can’t see straight,” he says. “But I know in a couple minutes I’m gonna be fine. Because I’ve done that plenty of times before.” He also explained “I knew I was concussed because I blacked out. I wasn’t seeing straight. And they wanted me to change my story”1. His decision is logical and it seemed as if no one really resented the fact he had called it an early career. From a fan’s perspective it is a shame to watch such a talent hang up his cleats when he had more to give.
In 2012, Johnson signed a 7 year, $113 million extension with $53 million in guaranteed money, making him the highest paid receiver at that time. This included a signing bonus worth $16 million and this is where the problems arose. In 2017, a report was released stating that as a result of his early retirement the Lions asked for 10% of that bonus back ($320,000) which Johnson obliged, albeit with Johnson frustrated with the demand2.
Contractually, the Lions could have asked for a settlement worth $3.2 million, but instead demanded Johnson return $1.6 million, not just the 10%. They offered a 500k annual salary plus another 100k to Johnson’s charitable organization of choice if he worked 28 hours of promotional appearances per year which he rejected. Johnson was already frustrated with how the Lions treated him throughout his career and even more so with the original request for 10% of his bonus. This new request only furthered the dismay between the Lions and Johnson with Johnson saying it’s not about the money, but about the principle and desire for the Lions to treat him how he believes he deserves3. The Lions responded to this claiming that they could not give Johnson his money outright since the NFL would audit the payment, a standard practice to ensure NFL teams are not manipulating cap space. The interesting part about this situation is that generally teams do not recall signing bonuses, especially with a player of Johnson’s caliber. The Lions cannot use the money recouped towards current roster signings or to increase their cap space for the upcoming years. It’s more likely a precedent to make sure other players do not believe they will be guaranteed money if they decide to follow in the footsteps of Johnson and Sanders and retire before completing their contract.
The fans immediate reaction was to back Johnson as he is an iconic player to their franchise. However, it’s tough to place blame firmly on one side. The Lions handled the situation poorly, but their reasoning is understandable. They don’t need the $3.2 million as the franchise is worth $2.4 billion, but the precedent they set is important. There’s a fine line between honoring the great players of the franchise and establishing a firm rule of commitment to honoring a contract. Johnson has a right to be disgruntled, especially if his allegations against the Lions training staff are true. However, there must be some level of compromise on his side as it seems the Lions are trying to make amends within the guidelines of the league’s rules. The 28 hours a year of promotional material, 5 of which would be based around the Lions' retirement of Johnson’s jersey, seems to be a fair offer. It would be a shame for a legend like Megatron to distance himself from football and the only team in his career, but the situation does not seem like it’s going to resolve itself anytime soon. Hopefully, Johnson will find some middle ground with the organization in order to immortalize him within Detroit by having #81 in the rafters of Ford Field.
1 Dator, James. “Calvin Johnson's Beef with the Lions, and His $1.6M DEMAND, Explained.” SBNation.com. SBNation.com, September 15, 2021. http://www.sbnation.com/nfl/2021/9/15/22675896/calvin-johnsons-beef-lions-1-6m-payment-nfl.
2 Windsor, Shawn. “It's on the Detroit Lions to Make Amends with Calvin Johnson over PETTY $320,000 Payback.” Detroit Free Press. Detroit Free Press, May 25, 2017. https://www.freep.com/story/sports/nfl/lions/2017/05/25/calvin-johnson-detroit-lions-feud/345816001/.
3 Smith, Posted by Michael David. “Report: Calvin Johnson Turned down LIONS' Offer of $500,000 a Year for 28 Hours of Work.” ProFootballTalk, August 7, 2021. https://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2021/08/07/report-calvin-johnson-turned-down-lions-offer-of-500000-a-year-for-28-hours-of-work/.
Evan Mattel is a 1L at Hofstra Law and a member of the Sports and Entertainment Law Society. He can be found at @Evan_Mattel21 on Twitter.