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, whether $150,000 for no-questions-asked opt outs or $350,000 for higher-risk players, 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.”
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.
The question at that point 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 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 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 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.