As the NFL and NFL Players Association try to reach a comprehensive agreement on the contours and requirements of football season in a pandemic, one of the most important issues for discussion relates to the ability of players to make the conscientious decision to opt out.
Other sports are doing it, and the NFL should, too. Players can choose not to play in 2020, forfeiting their salary but incurring no other penalties, like fines or bonus forfeitures.
On the surface, it’s a simple, binary choice. But, like everything else relating to the pandemic, the question quickly becomes complicated. Here are just some of the questions that the opt-out issue sparks.
First, must the decision be made before training camp, or will players have a chance to show up, see the facility, experience practice, and make a decision later?
Second, should players have the ability to opt out at any time, if/when they decide based on the total circumstances that the risk no longer justifies playing?
Third, could players have the ability to tap out and then tap back in? Or will the decision to leave be final and binding?
Fourth, will the league allow teams to offer players who are considering opting out extra money for the season? If, for example, a player thinks the extra risk isn’t worth $1.5 million in salary, what if the team offers $2.3 million? $2.4 million? $2.5 million?
Fifth, will players who want more money for reasons unrelated to the pandemic use the threat of an opt-out to get a raise? Will agents advise players to feign concern over playing in the pandemic to send a message that more money will make the player less uncomfortable?
As one source explained it last night to PFT, it will be critical for the rules regarding player opt-outs to be clear and to be constructed in a way that minimizes the potential for abuse. It may take a blanket prohibition on new contracts for 2020 to get there, because the opportunity to opt out becomes a natural pressure point for players who deserve more and for teams willing to give them more in order to get them to play.
Regardless, this is one of many issues for the league and union to resolve, and it presents plenty of challenges on its own. Throw in the rest of the issues, and it’s hard to imagine a deal being in place by July 28.