Barry Sanders may be interested in returning to the NFL, but the Detroit Lions continue to maintain they are not interested in trading him. If the star running back wants to play this season, they say, he'll have to play for Detroit.

"We're taking Barry at his word that he doesn't want to play," a Lions spokesman said yesterday after ESPN reported on its Web site that Sanders is interested in returning to the NFL but not with the Lions. "He certainly is not going to be traded."

Sanders abruptly retired in July and has since offered to repay $5.4 million of his signing bonus if the Lions release or trade him this season. David Ware, Sanders's agent, told ESPN he made the offer to Detroit on Monday but that the team rejected it. The Lions spokesman said he could not confirm Ware's statement.

"I think he's ready to consider it, in the right situation," Ware said. "But the right situation is not the Detroit Lions. His career is finished there. We're trying to get him back on the football field, where he belongs."

Last week, Detroit filed a grievance to recover $5.4 million of the $11 million signing bonus Sanders, 31, got when he signed a five-year contract in 1997. Sanders and his agent disagree with Detroit's claim that he is required to repay a portion of the bonus if he doesn't play. He did not collect a $1.7 million deferred payment due this fall on the original bonus.

The grievance will be heard by an independent arbitrator appointed by the NFL's Management Council, with no timetable set on when that process will begin. A league spokesman said a non-injury grievance normally takes four to six months to be completed, meaning Sanders would likely miss the season unless he agrees to return to Detroit.

"We think this thing could go either way with an arbitrator," Ware said. "The fact that the Lions have pursued this course has burned any bridge, any possibility, that he would return to the club. But Barry will write the check right now if they'll let him go or trade him."

Ware told ESPN he has contacted three Lions officials, including club owner William Clay Ford, and asked that Sanders be released or traded if he repays the portion of the bonus.

"They've told us that if Barry ever plays again, he'll play for the Lions or nobody," Ware said. "That's not going to happen, so we're offering a pretty good deal: more than $5 million, plus they can get compensation for him."