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NFL’s opt-out offer carries a renegotiation loophole

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PHOENIX - JULY 20: A detail view of a football shows the redesigned NFL Shield logo during a photo shoot on July 20, 2008 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Gene Lower/Getty Images)

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PFT has obtained the full contents of the NFL’s most recent proposal to the NFL Players Association, which means that the weekend will feature a series of blurbs regarding various aspects of the league’s position.

First up, one of the most intriguing aspects of pro football in a pandemic: The ability of players to choose not to play.

The deadline for making an all-or-nothing decision arrives on August 1, at 5:00 p.m. ET. Written notice “must be received” by the team before that moment; once notice is received as to a given player, the opt out becomes irrevocable. Thus, unlike a holdout (which can end at any time), the player who opts out cannot play at all in 2020.

A player who opts out will have his contract toll for a full year. He will not receive his base salary or any other payments scheduled to be earned after the date of the opt out, and he will not earn a benefit credit or an accrued season. In 2021, his contract will be reinstated. If he “timely reports for all required activities” in 2021, the opt out will not become a breach of his 2020 contract, which “will not subject him to discipline or forfeiture, will not void any bonuses or guarantees or have any other adverse consequences beyond those set forth herein.”

That’s an important provision. The player who opts out in 2020 can’t hold out or otherwise breach his contract in 2021; if he does, his opt out becomes a breach of his contract, after the fact.

The player who opts out will receive a $150,000 stipend for 2020 -- minus any amounts already received by the player in 2020. The balance (up to $150,000) would be treated as an advance on the player’s 2021 base salary. (This implies that players not under contract for 2021 would not be eligible for the stipend.)

Here’s the most intriguing aspect of the opt-out proposal: The NFL’s offer states that "[n]o club may renegotiate a contract with any player who has given notice of his intention to opt out.” As a practical matter, this gives a player until August 1 to use the threat of a potential opt out as leverage to get a new deal.

The message from agent to team would go like this: “My client wants to play this year, but he’s got serious reservations about the league’s safety procedures, and he is concerned about catching the virus and spreading it to his family. But he’d be willing to assume the enhanced risk of playing this year if he were to get a new contract.”

For players who already have made their displeasure with their contract known, like Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, it potentially becomes the ultimate all-in move. If he opts out, he’s done for the year. And while he’d still be subject to the terms of his 2020 contract in 2021, the Vikings wouldn’t have him on the team in 2020. Would the threat of an opt out be enough to get them to pay Cook?

One last point on the opt out: It’s irrevocable both to the player’s team and as to any other team. Although he can be traded or released after opting out, the player cannot play for any team in 2020, once notice to opt out is received.

Again, these terms come only from the NFL’s latest offer. The union may push for, and secure, a later opt-out date or the conditional ability to return by a specific date later in the year or more money for 2020 or other terms not currently in the offer. For now, however, it’s clear that the league is willing to let a player choose to not play, subject to a broader agreement on the terms and conditions for the 2020 season.