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.