Published July 22, 2017

The toughest, baddest Red Wing of them all—heck, maybe the toughest, baddest hockey player of them all—was not long into his retirement from skates when the press caught him at a team function in his new role as a club vice president.

The reporters wanted to know: how’s the new job, Gordie?

Howe shrugged those famous sloped shoulders. “They give me the mushroom treatment.”

Come again?

“The mushroom treatment,” Howe said. “They keep me in the dark and every once in awhile they throw (manure) on me.”

The Red Wings blew it with Howe. Gordie wanted to coach. Gordie wanted to be the general manager. Gordie wanted to actually do something after playing.

Instead, owner Bruce Norris and GM Ned Harkness shoved the greatest player in franchise history into the basement, like an old pair of shoes. Occasionally they’d call on Gordie to make a public appearance on behalf of the team, often with very little notice. The Red Wings didn’t even send Howe on a scouting mission. It was a do nothing job. And it was shameful.

Howe spent a year as “VP” before telling the Red Wings to shove the job into their five hole, choosing to lace on skates again and play hockey with his sons in Houston in the fledgling World Hockey Association. Good for him.

The Lions better not give Barry Sanders the mushroom treatment. They better not do it to Barry.

The other day, it was announced that the Lions were bringing Barry, the Howe of their franchise, back into the fold as a “brand ambassador.” I don’t know about you, but I’m already getting the willies.

“It’s a formal agreement. I worked with Barry and his agent to put something together that works for both of us,” said Lions president Rod Wood. “It’s not a football role. It’s more of a marketing, business role.”


I’m getting the willies because as the Lions are describing it, Sanders will be a glorified glad-hander. And that’s beneath him.

“He’ll be going on road trips, showing up for suite visits, he’ll be at the Taste of the Lions event, and just interacting with our fans on behalf of the team,” Wood said.

That’s a role that you give to players of lesser stature. It’s beneath Sanders to be a PR flack. Sanders, who would be on most NFL historians’ Top Ten Players of All Time lists, deserves more. He deserves better. Except that Barry will never say it.

Don’t worry. I will.

Sanders is one of many too-humble sports superstars who we’ve seen ply their trade in Detroit.

There was Steve Yzerman, whose “Aw, shucks” demeanor started when he was an 18-year-old rookie and still continues today at age 52.

There was Al Kaline, who was also 18 years old and fresh off the sandlots of Baltimore when he debuted with the Tigers in 1953. Kaline is still, at age 82 and 3,007 hits later, very much that kid from Baltimore.

There was David Bing, who came to the Pistons as a skinny, unknown guard from Syracuse in 1966. All Bing did was save the franchise from moving out of Detroit in the late-1960s. That’s not an opinion.

There was the aforementioned Howe, who was one of the gentlest, nicest men. Off the ice.

Barry Sanders fits in perfectly with this group of larger-than-life stars who always carried themselves with grace and dignity. Quietly.

So the Lions better not give Barry the mushroom treatment. They’d better not turn him into a casino greeter.

Yzerman was groomed for team managing with the Red Wings before showing the Tampa Bay Lightning what he learned.

Kaline’s association with the Tigers is now over 60 years old and has included playing, broadcasting, instructing and today Kaline still is in the room when the Tigers talk trades and possible free agent signings.

Bing had the Pistons’ coaching job dangled in front of him in 1979, which was awful, but that didn’t dissuade David from remaining close to the team as a broadcaster for many years. Bing’s relationship with the Pistons today remains strong.

The Red Wings screwed up with Howe, no question. They did it twice, actually.

In the late-1970s, Colleen Howe offered to bring her family back to the Red Wings: Gordie, Mark and Marty. Colleen, who was the family’s business guru, wanted to take a meeting with then-GM Ted Lindsay to discuss making her family Red Wings again. Lindsay, who got into a snit with Gordie in their playing days over Ted wanting to start a players union in the NHL, never returned Colleen’s call.

Howe’s mushroom treatment was the first thing that sprang to mind when I read of the Lions and Barry getting back together, officially, whereby Barry will again be receiving a paycheck with a Ford’s signature on it.

“Brand ambassador” isn’t what Barry Sanders should be, I’m sorry.

You can be mad at Sanders for retiring abruptly, by fax, on the eve of training camp in 1999. Fine. But Barry hasn’t taken public shots at the organization. He hasn’t thrown the team under the bus. He hasn’t made thinly-veiled references to the Lions’ lack of winning as being the reason he hung up his cleats. He never looked wistfully at the Oakland Raiders.

He hasn’t described playing for the Lions “like banging my head against the wall.”

Barry hasn’t been Calvin Johnson.

Then again, Calvin Johnson is no Barry Sanders, so what would you expect?

Image result for barry sanders
Barry will never say it, but his new role with the Lions is beneath him.

If the Lions are going to put Barry back on the payroll, instead of “brand ambassador,” which makes my eyes twitch just typing it, the team ought to give no. 20 a real job. Or else don’t give him a job at all.

You don’t think Barry could work with running backs in training camp? You don’t think he could go on the road and scout? Couldn’t Barry be involved in the draft?

Barry’s been a good Lion, as a player and in retirement. He’s still pulling for the team on Twitter every Sunday. I can see why the Lions would want to leverage his stature and his allegiance to the Honolulu Blue and Silver. They’re just going about it the wrong way.

The Red Wings blew it with Gordie but they got it right with Mark Howe, who’s been in charge of pro scouting for the team for several years. And Mark played most of his NHL career outside of Detroit.

Sanders’ agent, J.B. Bernstein, is saying all the right things about the Lions’ sham of a job offer to his client.

“The Fords, everybody from the top on down, they’ve always wanted to have Barry involved as much as possible,” Bernstein told the Detroit News. “Now, we’re getting to the point where he has some significant time to allocate to the team and we’re excited about it.”

I don’t believe it for a second.

Barry won’t say it. He won’t bitch to the press about it. He won’t tell the media that the Lions’ offer is both long overdue—18 years after he retired—and perilously close to Gordie Howe’s mushroom treatment. It’s not his style.

Granted, Barry could have declined the offer. He could have told the Lions what they could do with it. But that’s not what he’s about. He wants to be a good soldier. I respect that, even if I disagree with it.

According to the News, the new arrangement between the Lions and Sanders will be re-evaluated at the end of the season and Bernstein said he could see it eventually expanding to the point where Sanders worked in the office.

Oh brother. The Lions aren’t even promising Barry a cubicle at this point. The agreement does call for Barry to make “at least one appearance” at training camp.

Geez. How big of them.

I’m sure the fans in the suites will be googly eyed when Barry Sanders walks in as brand ambassador. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled when Barry shows up and shakes some hands at a team function. Who can blame them?

I wonder how many awed fans will drive home after the experience, realizing that the Lions are turning their greatest player of all time into a caricature.

Because that’s exactly what the Lions are doing to Barry Sanders, even if no one wants to admit it.

Shame on them.