Opt-out stipend must be repaid, even if player is cut in 2021

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The official agreement between the NFL and NFL Players Association says plenty about the rules for player opt outs. The agreement does not expressly address whether a player who opts out for 2020, who collects a six-figure stipend, and who fails to make the team in 2021 must pay the money back.

The league’s position is that the money, if the player takes the base level $150,000 stipend, is owed to the team in 2021, if the player doesn’t make the team.

“Yes,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told PFT regarding whether the money would be owed by a 2020 opt out who is cut after he returns in 2021. “It’s a salary advance.”

If, however, the player qualified for the “higher risk” opt out and the $350,000 payment that goes with it, the money is not owed in 2021. It’s not a salary advance; the player has no obligation to pay the money back or to otherwise have the money reduced from his 2021 salary.

So if, for example, an undrafted rookie who otherwise qualifies for a $350,000 stipend chooses to opt out, collects the money, and then fails to make it to the 53-man roster in 2021, that player will get to keep the $350,000. Likewise, if he makes the team in 2021, his salary won’t be reduced by that amount.

For players who opt out without the higher-risk designation and fail to make the team in 2021, the question then becomes whether the team will enforce the debt. Some teams may, some may not. It could become a P.R. problem for a team to chase a player around for reimbursement, when the team simply could have given the player a roster spot and allowed him to earn the money that he already had been paid. Indeed, for some teams, the undrafted rookie who opts out at the $150,000 level this year could end up being more likely to earn a bottom-of-roster position in 2021, since that’s the only way the team can get its money back without getting its hands dirty.

Other teams may feel differently, especially if the people making the final decisions as to the composition of the roster hold private hostility to those who chose to not play during the pandemic. Will, for example, Washington defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio provide glowing reviews to management regarding the performance of any defensive players who sat out for 2020 without a higher-risk status and then returned in 2021? If those players get cut, they in theory will be required to dig deep to pay the money back — most likely with no NFL income to facilitate the payment.

However it plays out in 2021, it’s something that the non-higher-risk players who have yet to make a final opt-out decision need to remember: The stipend does not constitute free money, even if you end up not making the team the year after the opt out.

UPDATE 4:17 p.m. ET: A prior version of this article explained that the payment constitutes an advance, regardless of risk categorization. That reflected information from the NFL that the NFL has since corrected. Again, for higher-risk categorizations, the player gets $350,000, no strings attached.

28 responses to “Opt-out stipend must be repaid, even if player is cut in 2021

  1. In this scenario, the Patriots would make the IRS look like boy scouts when it comes to getting their money back.

  2. Knowing how some of these players handle their finances, this could be a big mess.

  3. “Indeed, for some teams, the undrafted rookie who opts out this year could end up being more likely to earn a bottom-of-roster position in 2021, since that’s the only way the team can get its money back without getting its hands dirty.”
    ______________

    In that scenario the team wouldn’t be getting their money back, though. They’d be eating the money AND hurting their roster AND putting themselves on the hook for whatever he was due under his normal contract. If a team was worried about PR they’d be far smarter to cut a guy in that situation and just not go after him for the optout money because by cutting him they’d have freed themselves of the contractual obligations.

  4. It’s a salary advance, not a loan.
    If there is no salary, there can be nothing to repay it from.

  5. >>So if, for example, an undrafted rookie who otherwise qualifies for a $350,000 stipend chooses to opt out, collects the money, and then fails to make it to the 53-man roster in 2021, that player will have a $350,000 debt to his then-former employer.

    Simple. If you are a player on the bubble, with a good chance of not getting picked up in 2021, get an accountant and figure out how to make that money untouchable.

    In Florida use it to buy a primary home. Then when the NFL says pay us back in 2021 and you don’t have an NFL roster spot, declare bankruptcy.

  6. The well-run classy organizations have already talked it out with the players before they opted out so that no one gets sucker punched with a six figure debt and no income. They let the guys know what to expect out of a sense of decency. I’m thinking Ravens, Steelers, Seahawks, maybe even the Patriots. Chiefs probably.

    Washington comes to mind as a team that will rake back whatever it can and then try to do more even damage just out of spite (see Trent Williams). Cheap teams like the Bengals. Clueless teams like the Browns. Maybe the Lions.

    Some teams with decency have already let the opt outs know the score, I’m sure.

  7. The notion of carry over to 2121 for players under contract, who opt out, may create some problems once they return next year.
    For example, a veteran player with 10 million due in 2020, doesn’t pass his physical in 2121, and it’s not related to covid.

  8. Good luck collecting that money unless you keep him active the next year and garnish wages….

  9. “Simply give him a roster spot”

    That’s not what competitive teams do. The best players get the roster spots.

  10. Good. Thats the way it should be. The real world keeping the economy going doesn’t give you this pretty little hand out if you are in fear of working.

  11. Put aside 20k or so for the irs and then see if you make the team or not next year, if not the owners can blank it!

  12. Yeah, good luck with that…

    You think teams are going to be willing to take a PR hit of pursuing $150K from a player who just had their career ended, or as they head to the CFL or XFL? Me neither.

  13. “It could become a P.R. problem for a team to chase a player around for reimbursement, when the team simply could have given the player a roster spot and allowed him to earn the money that he already had been paid.”
    I want my team to get the money back, not getting it back has two bad outcomes; 1.uses up cap space if the player is gone the next year or 2. a lesser player makes the roster. I’d be pissed if my team put out a known inferior product.

  14. The mafia and payday lenders are idolizing the NFL right now for their ability to fleece it’s own players!

    They’re either serious about supporting the players or they’re not! This is complete and utter usury!

  15. I would be more interested to know if the players that opt out can use team facilities, use the trainers, strength and conditioning coaches,health benefits…

  16. It’s probably not practical to recover the money back from some player who ends up driving a beer truck in 2021. What would be interesting is whether teams can collect the money back from players who sign with other teams later. Say some 7th string receiver doesn’t make the Eagles in 2021, but then the Redskins have some injuries and bring him in for a tryout, and he joins the Redskins in Week 10 of 2021. Can the Eagles get their salary advance back from the Redskins?

  17. I just want to be sure that if a player opts out and his replacement ends up being a keeper, making the opting out player expendable, that a team can cut the opting out player with no hit to the cap.

    Because some of these guys that opted out aren’t getting their jobs back and rightly so.

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