The way Calvin Johnson sees it, I’m surprised any of the Detroit Lions are showing up this season.
Johnson pretty much trashed his former team during a news conference in Italy last week. From a guy who’s usually reserved and classy, it felt awkward.
“I was stuck in my contract in Detroit,” he told reporters. “…I didn’t see a chance for them to win a Super Bowl at the time, and for the work I was putting in, it wasn’t worth my time to keep on beating my head against the wall.”
He then added, “It’s the definition of insanity.”
Now, it’s true, many equate being a Lions fan with craziness. Rooting for a team with one playoff win in the last 60 years makes people wonder.
But fans do not get paid.
Calvin Johnson did.
He got paid extremely well. In 2012, he willfully signed one of the biggest deals ever, agreeing to eight years and $132 million, with $60 million guaranteed.
Some see $132 million to catch a football as the definition of insanity.
But that’s the business. So is this: accepting the team you’re on and doing all you can to help it. You signed for eight years. Nobody forced you. Quitting because you don’t see them winning a Super Bowl (Johnson didn’t say get to one, he said “win” one) is holding your employer to a pretty high standard, especially if you’re one of the main guys responsible for whether they get there.
Honoring the code
The list of great players who never saw a Super Bowl includes Gale Sayers, Deacon Jones, Dick Butkus and other Hall of Famers. The list of those who never won one is star-studded.
Yet here is Johnson saying, “No Super Bowl? Why stay?” That’s a far cry from what most football players say the game is about, giving your all, fighting together, accepting what happens, coming back for another season and trying again. The joy of competing. Not having some guarantee you win it all.
Johnson, whom I like and admire (and he knows this), nonetheless sounded like the petulant definition of the 2017 pro athlete, seeing the world through his own power, his own legacy and his own ability to manipulate a ring. If you can’t be Kevin Durant or LeBron James, steering your location, your roster, even your coaches, then somehow, despite $100 million, you’re being denied.
“In basketball, you know, guys create these superteams,” Johnson said. “But it’s not quite like that in football where I had the freedom just to go.”
He spoke almost enviously of Marshawn Lynch, who is coming out of retirement to play for the Oakland Raiders. Lynch, according to Johnson, is in “a great situation” because he could switch teams — even though the Raiders have had one winning season in the last 14 years. “If I was to keep playing, I’d have to play in Detroit and it just wasn’t for me anymore.”
I’d like to know how this played in the Lions locker room. How do guys who bust their butts for this franchise, who blocked for Johnson, who make a fraction of his money – how do they feel hearing Johnson label them hapless? He’s basically condemned them to losing, and called wearing the Detroit jersey “beating my head against the wall.”
Yes, I know fans and media say this. But the code is supposed to be different for players. I thought Johnson, of all people, would honor that code.
Can’t believe athletes
What’s sad is that it suggests you really shouldn’t believe players while they are under contract. Johnson, when he wore the uniform, would speak positively about the Lions’ chances. In 2015, he told the media, “I’m here to win. I want to win here.” But if all that time he was feeling trapped, and he quit a few months later, then he wasn’t speaking the whole truth. So why print his quotes?
Also, to be blunt, make up your mind. If you retired because your body couldn’t take it, as Johnson said at the time, then stick with that. Why does it matter if the Lions were Super Bowl bound or not?
And, by the way, at some point use the words, “The Lions did pay me a lot of money.” Most people can’t afford to quit their jobs, no matter how frustrating. Johnson, in nine years, walked away with over $113 million in salary and bonuses alone, not counting endorsements, etc. Yet he grumbled about the Lions after he quit.
“I just didn’t feel like I was treated the way I should have been treated on the way out,” he told the media. Did he not want to have to pay back any of his signing bonus – even though it’s part of his agreement? Did he want a parade for walking away?
It’s hard enough to be a Lions fan. They can be maddening, infuriating, but they’re still our team. And they were Johnson’s team. He can’t really hurt them. But he’s certainly not helping them, not with the statements he made. And coming from a usually admirable guy, that’s disappointing.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.