The 49ers Options With Chris Borland

Linebacker Chris Borland’s decision to retire from the NFL after just one season, due to fears about long term health concerns, has sparked a number of debates on the subject. The initial debates were about what this meant for the game and how player’s might react in the future to news about the dangers of football, but I think now we are starting to consider what are the potential negative financial implications associated with the retirement and what San Francisco may do to recover money from Borland.

In the NFL players are often paid a signing bonus upon signing a contract. For draft picks it is almost a certainty that they will receive a signing bonus. As long time readers of OTC know, signing bonus money is subject to forfeiture over the life of the contract for a number of reasons. The most common reason is drug/PED suspension, but a lesser known provision allows a team to recover money if a player opts to retire rather than honoring his contract.

Often a retiring player has expressed his potential desire to retire at the time a contract is signed. In other cases the player is a well established veteran who has given the NFL, and usually that team, so many great years of service that the player is lauded on his way out the door. There are also a number of situations where retirement allows the team and player to graciously end a career rather than having to release the player whose skills have declined significantly. An injury can also cause a player to retire and many times such players will be released for procedural purposes, such as David Wilson of the Giants.

One notable case I can recall where money was returned was when the Broncos traded Jake Plummer to the Buccaneers and Plummer refused to report and retired. Tampa did go after the bonus money because they had zero relationship with Plummer to consider his decision reasonable. Barry Sanders retired abrputly at the peak of his career in part because he wanted to play on a more competitive team and also returned a significant portion of his bonus money. The Lions had only two years before signed Sanders to a lurcative extension and and no idea that he would consider retirement an option.

With Borland we have a very unique case. Borland wasn’t injured. He wasn’t a veteran. He hadn’t been traded/drafted by a team he refused to play for. He decided that the risk of playing in the NFL was not worth the potential financial reward.

I think there are many reasons that a player who expressed interest in the NFL would change his mind the way Borland did. The 49ers were not exactly the ideal location for any player in 2014. He looked around him and saw guys injured. The organization was in disarray with a head coach being pushed out the door, a QB under heavy scrutiny, and a player being kicked off the team for a domestic issue off the field. He played with the greatest linebacker of the last decade, who himself decide it wasn’t worth it anymore just a few days before. He still would have to play at least two more years  before there was any significant financial reward. These things can quickly change the view of being in the NFL after actually experiencing it.

But regardless of why he chose to do it or if it was some grand gesture on his part, the 49ers should strongly consider going after his salary. There is precedent that is going to be set with this case. While Borland received a very modest (by NFL standards) signing bonus of $617,436, we should not get caught up in the amount of the bonus. What if Jedeveon Clowney, who struggled with injuries and had questions surface about his play, decided to retire after one year after receiving a $14,518,544 signing bonus? Not only is there the opportunity cost lost to the team but this would be a major financial loss. While the numbers are dramatically different the approach should be the same.

This is the same kind of logic that has forced the NFL Players Association to fight for the salary of Aaron Hernandez, who is likely going to be convicted of murder.  It has forced them to defend Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. While many people look down on it they are doing it because they need to do it for the benefit of the other 2,000 or so player who play in the NFL. For as bad as it may look to to try to obtain nearly $4 million for Hernandez to likely use on lawyers, had they not acted on his behalf the NFL could potentialy throw aside contractual guarantees for a number of reasons.

The NFL has to protect the interest of the teams in this case while also protecting the contract structures of future draft picks. If Borland’s decision becomes considered acceptable around the NFL, teams will no longer be willing to use the signing bonus as a large first year payment for the player.  Instead they will increase yearly salaries and guarantee the compensation in order to protect it from being paid in the event of early retirement. That defers the time it will take for a player to earn his actual salary which is certainly not good for the players.

The 49ers are entitled to 463,077 of Borland’s salary, which is 3/4 of his signing bonus, if Borland does not reconsider his decision to retire. Recovering $155,468 of that money should be easy. That is the amount of Peformance Based Pay that was earned by Borland for 2014. The 49ers will simply withhold that payment as a form of recovery. The other $307K will need to be turned over by the player unless there is any other cash witholding in the possession of the 49ers.

Questions about this article? Reach Jason Fitzgerald on Twitter at @jason_otc