The contract squabble between Barry Sanders and the Detroit Lions has come to this: The two agents representing the All-Pro running back seemed to be plucking petals off a daisy last week when they were asked why their client was absent from the Lions' voluntary minicamp. "It is about money," said Lamont Smith. "It isn't the money." said David Ware.
Detroit's new coach, Bobby Ross, who hasn't spoken to Sanders since mid-April, said last Thursday that he has left four messages on the player's answering machine and has taken the extraordinary step of sending him a registered letter "just to update Barry on what's going on and to tell him that I've tried to reach him and to ask him to give me a buzz."
Sanders surfaced most recently on rocker Ted Nugent's Detroit-based radio show on June 3 when he did a phone interview during which he rapped about his recent vacation to Rio de Janiero and endured some ridicule from Nugent and his two guest cohosts, a Denver radio duo named Lewis and Floorwax. One on-air exchange went like this:
Floorwax: "Barry really likes watches, don't you, Barry? He's got one where you turn it upside down and the bikini disappears off the chick."
Sanders: "Oh, maaaaan."
Nugent's show will never be confused with Nightline. During the course of the seven-minute interview Sanders was asked only one football question: What's the prognosis for the '97 Lions? ("I think things are going to work out well," he replied. "I think we have the ingredients for a successful year.") There was no mention of the contract dispute. Not a word about Ross's displeasure after Sanders skipped a mandatory minicamp in late April. ("Barry should be here," Ross said at the time. "He's under contract.") Nothing about whether Sanders planned to attend the three-day voluntary minicamp, which ended on Sunday.
But in a telephone interview with SI last Saturday from Atlanta, Sanders reiterated that his decision to remain incommunicado with the Lions is "nothing against Coach Ross. I do feel bad about the strain it's maybe putting on Coach. I really like him. I think he's going to be great for our team. But there's this other issue that has to be settled first."
Sanders has one year left on a four-year, $17.2 million contract. If he waits until after the 1997 season to work out a new deal and talks reach a stalemate, the Lions could slap him with their franchise-player designation and force him to play in '98 for the average salary of the five highest-paid running backs in the league or 120% of his 1997 salary, whichever is greater. "To maintain optimal leverage, I think it's probably best to wait this out, get it done now," he says.
The 5'8", 203-pound Sanders, who has led the NFL in rushing three times and has finished second three times in his eight pro seasons, is scheduled to earn $4.23 million this season. The Lions, who entered into contract talks in February, have agreed to sweeten his next contract with an $11 million signing bonus, but one of Sanders's stipulations is that he become Detroit's highest-paid player. That means he would have to earn more than quarterback Scott Mitchell, who in February signed a deal that pays an average salary of $5.25 million over four years. Sanders wants an average of $5.5 million over the same term.
A snag developed in April when the Lions offered Sanders an average of about $5.2 million per year. Then, last month, Detroit executive vice president Chuck Schmidt and cap specialist Tom Lewand offered Sanders a package that would effectively pay him $250 a year more than Mitchell, telling Smith and Ware, "There, are you satisfied? Now he's the highest-paid player on the team." At that point feelings became frayed, and the public posturing began anew.