Barry Sanders was, without a doubt, one of the greatest running backs in the history of the NFL. In Detroit, he’s included in the sports Mt. Rushmore of people with the likes of Gordie Howe and Isaiah Thomas. But something strange happened to the Lions at the end of the 1998-99 season and every sports fan in Detroit remembers the day Barry, in his prime and after another stellar year, decided to retire and just disappear.
For 90 minutes, Amazon Prime’s 2023 documentary Bye Bye Barry attempts to explain why this iconic man of Detroit sports lore would jump on a plane for London at the end of the season and not tell anyone he was done.
Think about what you’d do in your business if the company’s top producer suddenly disappeared and faxed their resignation a few days later. The employee didn’t go to another company. No, the employee just quit, walked away and jetted off. You’re left only with the question, “Was this person really ever part of your team”?
There may be no “I” in team, but there was definitely an “I” in Barry’s retirement. For all his accomplishments, he had very little interest in engaging with the Lions’ organization, in interviews, with teammates, etc. He was the true definition of aloof.
While this is not entirely unusual for a professional sports athlete (Jim Brown), and for all his personal achievements, remember that as legendary as Barry was, the Lions won one playoff game during his professional career. ONE. While many people would blame his surrounding cast, this doesn’t work in business. If you’re running a company and depending on a star producer who wants nothing to do with management, clients, co-workers and public events, that’s death for your business. It’s not that Barry didn’t care. According to the documentary, he did. But it took 24 years for us to hear it because when he was playing, he didn’t have the social tools to show it.
In today’s sports world, players who take a personal interest in their team’s success tend to achieve more. Take, for instance, the NBA and the emergence of super teams. The Lakers (Lebron James) and the Nets and Suns (Kevin Durant) have used their stars to recruit and inspire supporting parts, whether it be someone like Kyrie Irving or James Harden. Those teams got better because Durant and Lebron cared enough about affecting the win-loss column that they spent their free time on the phone promoting the team’s potential and culture to other players who wanted to join them. Sometimes it worked (Lakers) and sometimes it didn’t (Nets), but the point is that Barry’s total contribution to the Lions was on the field. Not in the locker room. Not in the community (that changed after his retirement). Barry was an enigma to most people in the league, on his team and to his coaches.
By the end of the Amazon Prime documentary, we still learned little about why Barry did what Barry did in 1999 except for the fact that he had made that decision by and for himself. He gave little thought to the Lions organization, his coaches or his teammates, none of whom were told about his decision to retire. However, a couple of members of the Lions said in the documentary that they weren’t exactly surprised.
You’ve heard people talk about someone being or not being “a team player.” As cliche as that comment is, it’s true that someone focused only on their own lives, accomplishments and income will always be limited in what they can bring to your business. And the irony is not lost in calling someone like Barry limited in light of his exceptional on-field talent.
The most successful members of your business team are those who are “all in” and understand and believe in the company and its products or services. They are the ones who will do what they can to improve the company by innovating, adding to the culture and sometimes recruiting others to join them.
It wasn’t apparent that Barry ever really believed in the Lions, who aren’t blameless here, either. There was something not right with the culture and multiple coaches, and it was apparent that Barry never felt like he got enough support on the field to expect the Lions would be winners in the future.
In business, management needs to not only recruit the best players who fit, but it’s also up to them to develop a culture that inspires those on the team to give their very best and look ahead to contributing to the company’s future.
Barry didn’t like his present and apparently wasn’t thrilled with the view of his future. So, at the age of 31, he quit. It took more than two decades of a new millennium for the Lions to recover from that.
Businesses not financially propped up by the Ford Motor Company don’t usually have that kind of time. Building a team with employees (players) who support, lead and inspire your company puts you in a much more advantageous environment to win. And if you do that successfully you won’t have your legendary top earner abruptly say bye-bye.