IT WAS LIKE going to divorce court, with the judge deciding, in the end, that it was a no-fault marriage. These things happen, he seemed to say. One side wants out. The other side wants things the way they were. Make the math work. Get on with life.

So it was that Barry Sanders’ career with the Detroit Lions came to a bland, unsatisfying, but apparently legal end. According to the arbitrator, Sanders, who quit the team two years into his six-year contract, has to eventually give back his $5.5 million signing bonus money, but not all at once, as the Lions had wanted.

Instead, he owes them some money now, for not having played this past season. He’ll owe them more next year, if he’s still sitting. More the following year. More the following year.

Barry’s agent called it a “victory,” but I don’t know: His guy can’t play for anyone but the Lions — unless the Lions allow him to and unless he hands over a huge check. Otherwise, Sanders must ultimately refund $5.5 million to his old team.

If that’s victory, it’s pretty hollow. And pretty expensive.

“It was what we expected,” said David Ware, Sanders’ agent.

“It was what we expected,” said Chuck Schmidt, the Lions’ chief operating officer.

Obviously, each side sees it through their own set of glasses.

Here’s what I see: I see a dangerous precedent. Because, while Barry says he’s retired, done, through with football, he and his agents are still offering the Lions a complete payback, right now, for his freedom to play anywhere he wants.

And if they do that, a contract isn’t even worth the paper it’s shredded into.

A new way to leverage the market

Let me get this straight. I can have a six-year contract, work two years, say
“I quit” and give back the bonus money only as the years go by?

Meanwhile, I can keep that money — we’re talking millions of dollars here — invest it, make even more money from it, while thumbing my nose at the people who gave it to me?

Or, even better, I can offer to pay it back all at once for complete free agency?

What’s the point of a long-term deal? The next guy who doesn’t like his city, his coach, his teammates, or the carpet in the locker room, can “retire” — albeit briefly — and tell his team, “Either I sit here on my butt earning interest on your money, or you let me play for another team by giving you the money back.”

Wow. You thought the end zone dance was big? “Retirement” may become the next hot trend in the NFL.

Who wouldn’t “retire” if it got you out of Cleveland and into New York? Who wouldn’t retire if it got you out of Rich Kotite and into Bill Parcells?

Sure, the original team can refuse to let the player go — as I believe the Lions will do with Sanders — but basically, that turns them into a bank, and a bad bank at that. They lend millions when a player signs, then they get it back in yearly increments.

Yes, Sanders must pay interest. According to Schmidt, it’s twice the current one-year treasury bill rate. Today, that would mean about 12 percent.

And 12 percent is good. But what if the team put that money into the next Microsoft? Twelve percent would be nothing by comparison.

Now, of course, Barry has yet to speak on this. Barry, as far as we know, has yet to say whether he wants bananas on his cereal. Barry doesn’t talk anymore, it seems, at least not about this. Ware, one of the few people who can verify Barry’s actual existence on the planet, said his client’s reaction to the arbitrator’s decision was “pretty much what he expected.”

When I asked if Barry plans to stay retired, Ware said, “I don’t know.”

When I asked if Barry’s payback offer meant he wants to play for another team, Ware said, “I think that’s a reasonable conclusion to come to.”

In other words, Barry Sanders might rather give back millions of dollars than play football here?

Boy. That’s not what they had in mind with the “Say Nice Things About Detroit” campaign, is it?

Just when did all this happen?

Here is the question that rings sadly unanswered: What was so terrible about being in Detroit? When did Barry decide this whole Lions organization isn’t for him? Why would a guy who was loyal to Wayne Fontes have no interest in standing by the Ford family, Bobby Ross, or his teammates?

What bridge was burned? And how did we all miss it? Or is Barry truly tired of the sport and just looking to make the best financial deal out of his retirement?

For the moment, we still don’t know. And no arbitrator is going to tell us.

The Lions insist Barry plays here or nowhere. “We’ll welcome him back,” Schmidt said. “He’s a great player. But we have no intention of taking them up on their offer to play somewhere else.

“Personally, I think Barry is retired. I don’t think he’s going to change his mind.”

Said Ware: “I don’t think the Lions are going to change their minds.”

So we have a stalemate — with a verdict.

You know the worst part of this decision? It isn’t the dangerous precedent, the miscommunication, or even the unanswered issues.

The worst part of this decision is that it didn’t make either side feel much better. And it only made the fans feel worse.

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