AWORD here to Barry Sanders, and I choose it carefully, thoughtfully and after much consideration:

SPEAK!

Enough already with the silence thing. Barry is pushing goodwill to the edge of the cliff. He is making fools out of people who defend him. And his trademark love of quiet is starting to look more and more like a negotiating ploy.

This was never more evident than two days ago, when David Ware, one of Barry’s two agents, told me that Barry, who hasn’t spoken to the media since quitting football, will agree to pay back the Lions the $5.6-million prorated portion of his signing bonus if — and this is a big if — the Lions “release his rights or trade him, so that if he decides to play again, he can control his own destiny.”

Whoa. Decides to play again? Control his own destiny? To quote the actress who suddenly discovers she’s supposed to do a nude scene, who put that in the script?

Weren’t we told repeatedly that Barry’s abrupt departure this summer — on the eve of training camp, the worst possible time — was not about the Lions, their sad history, their coaching, or anything like it? Barry loved Detroit, we were told. Barry was just tired, we were told. Barry wasn’t trying to force his way to another team, he was getting out of the game.

Decides to play again? Control his own destiny?

Excuse me. But isn’t walking away from a contract already controlling your destiny? Holding a team hostage is more like controlling someone else’s destiny.

With a hatchet.

To retire or to refuse

To try to understand who is obligated to whom, I called Chuck Schmidt, the Lions’ chief operating officer, and asked him about Barry’s contract.

“It says, very clearly,” Schmidt said, “that if Barry ‘voluntarily refuses to report or leaves the club without its consent,’ then he will be in ‘default.’ And if he is in ‘default,’ he has to pay back the proportionate share of the bonus that he hasn’t earned.”

Clear? Seems so. Unfortunately, it is completely opposite of what Ware, the agent, told me on Tuesday.

“There is nothing in Barry’s signing bonus agreement that says if he retired he has to pay the money back,” Ware declared. “Nothing.”

Now, unless Ware is reading the Chinese version, the only way he can draw such a different conclusion is to claim the word “retire” is not the same as
“voluntarily refuse.” The arbitrators will make that call, and the Lions seem more than confident to leave it in their hands.

After all, if this is true, it opens a pretty dangerous can of worms. Couldn’t any unhappy player say he was “retiring,” offer to pay back the club in exchange for complete freedom, then suddenly “unretire” when a championship team comes calling?

Already in the NFL this season we had a lineman named Dimitrius Underwood quit his Minnesota Vikings contract in order to “serve God.” A few weeks later, he was serving the Miami Dolphins.

Why bother with a contract at all?

Personally, I wouldn’t hold my breath on Barry playing for another team. The Lions would rather fold up shop and move to South America than see that happen. When I asked Schmidt whether there’s any way they’ll cut, release or trade Barry, he said “No” faster than I could swallow.

But that won’t keep Ware from trying. The agent actually tried to justify this by telling me, “Nobody in the United States has a contract that says …if you retire, you have to pay money back.”

Sorry. But that’s not true. I, and many people in radio, TV, books and movies, have contracts that state if we quit early, we have to return advance moneys. And, in many cases, if we quit with two years left on a deal, we can’t work for anyone else in the industry for those two years.

Ware’s response?

“You need a better agent.”

Still as elusive as ever

Now, I think Ware knows he’s wrong on this. But he is an agent. His job is to get as much money — or in this case keep as much money — as he can. After all, it’s pretty daunting to return $5.6 million — especially after you’ve invested it.

And it can’t be easy for an agent to refund around $250,000 in commission.

But Barry needs to understand something here. He is destroying a wonderful reputation. With these constant contradictions, these new maneuvers, this continuing portraiture of his victimization (when in fact he was paid well for his time in Detroit, and is not the only good player to never get a championship ring) are turning a humble, hard-working image into a haughty, hardball one.

The only way out of this is stepping into the light. Explain it yourself, Barry. You’re 31, not 13. You have always been admiringly humble, and shy with publicity, but you can’t pretend you don’t know what’s being said in your name. You can’t pretend your agent doesn’t work for you. And you can’t expect the general public to ignore it.

Unless this is what you want said. Unless this whole thing really wasn’t about retirement, it was about slithering away from Detroit. Unless people like myself, who have defended you consistently, saying until we hear it from your mouth we shouldn’t believe it, have been wrong all along.

In which case, you needn’t bother to speak.

Your silence already has.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM
(760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 6:30-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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