Tthe tendency and tone of the NFL’s approach to the pandemic has changed as the league moves into its second season in a Covid world. Last year was all kumbaya, rah-rah, football will guide us through the darkness kind of rhetoric. There was a community aspect to the league attitudewith They all worked to ensure that the season went ahead and that the nation’s main entertainment vehicle did not fail in any of its multi-billion dollar contracts.
The league awarded concessions to teams and players. Safeguards were created to protect the integrity of the competition. The players were not held personally responsible for the positive testing or contact with Covid. It was treated as a whole team issue, a social issue, not the fault of any single individual.
Not this year. Going into the new season, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and team owners have signed some of Covid’s strictest guidelines on this side of the military’s proposed vaccine mandate.
Changes in NFL regulations for Covid-19 for next season have turned vaccination rates between players and staff members into a form of an arms race. Games will not be postponed anymore. There are no extra weeks built into the season for makeup games. If your team deals with a blast, it’s up to you. The message from the league office is clear: do not want an explosion? Vaccinate your list, coaching staff, front office and administrative staff.
The NFL is betting on market forces in an effort to avert any Broncos-style disasters that occurred during the last season hit by the pandemic. There will be no more excesses. Each is each person and team for themselves – the most vaccinated can win.
The league headquarters sent a memo to the teams stating that if a game could not be rescheduled during the current 18-week league schedule due to a Covid outbreak among unvaccinated players, the team with the outbreak would lose the game completely and credited with a loss.
Here is the blow: the players of both teams will not be paid for the lost race, and the team responsible for the canceled game – the one with the explosion – will cover the finances for the team without explosion. They will also be subject to further discipline by the commissioner’s office if it is determined that the blast was due to a team or player not adhering correctly to Covid league protocol.
Last year the league did everything in its power to ensure that no matches were missed during the space of the then 17-week season. This season is over individuals, creating a natural dividing line between those who have and those who have not: those who have received a vaccine and those who have not.
As an abstract concept, freedom of choice and vaccine reluctance are likely to be seen inside a locker room as a personal matter. But once that choice shifts from the abstract to the real, once it starts paying, most of the bare room support will be wiped out.
Some players – Lamar Jackson, Kirk Cousins - have enough power by not assessing their position and contract status to be able to avoid any issues or pressure this season. They will still receive the bulk of their salary, regardless of the impact hit on their team, teammates, family members, profits or future inheritance.
But most of an NFL roster does not have such a value. Within the background of the lists, the league’s strong weapon tactics are working. Agents have reported that the teams spent the summer checking the vaccine status of their list clients. Want to get hired this season? Get the vaccine. Teams may be fine with arranging their traditional practice structures for the starting quarterback, but not for a player looking to make the team as a third defender.
Unvaccinated players who test positive for Covid remain under the same 2020 protocols, which means a 10-day period of isolation and a once asymptomatic return. Any vaccinated and asymptomatic player can resume activity after negative testing twice with 24 hours distance. This is a significant change over time. As Washington coach Ron Rivera recently pointed out, this could result in his unvaccinated players losing two games in the first week. Two losses could be the difference between the division title and the people fighting for their job.
Overall, NFL vaccination numbers are strong compared to rates elsewhere in the country. According to figures released by the league on Wednesday, 91.7% of all players have had at least one dose of vaccine; 15 teams have more than 95% of their players vaccinated. But the league is still not satisfied. She wants to reach her 100% target figure by the first week of the regular season.
Dr Allen Sills, chief medical officer for the NFL, has often cut a frustrated figure during league vaccination efforts. And no wonder. NFL players have access to world-class doctors; teams have brought in virologists to explain the vaccination process, from creation to administration; players have been able to ask questions directly to those involved in creating the vaccine. Yet there remains open reluctance to vaccine across the league.
Buffalo’s Cole Beasley continues to quarrel publicly with his teammates over his stance. One moment he is merely a skeptic, not an anti-vaccine; next he will release a vaccine-Fauci-dissel track track. Beasley’s stance has been so vocal and public in the face of the league’s pseudo-mandate that it has led executives to question whether he is deliberately trying to cut himself off from the Bills.
Beasley has been the face and voice of the NFL skeptical movement towards vaccines, but he is far from the only one. Recently, the Vikings lost all three members of their center room for several days of training after beginner Kellen Mond tested positive for Covid. The team’s starting quarterback, Cousins and Nate Stanley, were deemed to be in close contact with Mond and were forced to sit under league protocol.
The cousins drew public outrage from his coaching staff over his stance on the vaccine. His response: “I’m still doing research.” His continuation: wondering whether or not he should sit in a perspex box inside team facility to limit further disruption of Viking pre-season activities. His second sequel: the suggestion that the team meet outside throughout the season, even in the winter in Minnesota.
Meanwhile Jackson, a former league MVP, is still not sure about getting the vaccine despite having contracted Covid twice in the last 12 months.
You have to ask what resentments are spurred as teams continue to jump through games for unvaccinated players. From a cynical, non-health perspective, Jackson and Cousins have already put teams and teammates at a significant competitive disadvantage by missing pre-season parts, and the possibility that their status could affect games during the season will last all 18 weeks.
There will be other flash points of embarrassment. We have already seen Rivera, who is compromised after surviving cancer last year, publicly begging his players to get the vaccine. The answer was a trembling silence; his team entered in August with the lowest vaccination rate in the league. “I have not caught Covid yet,” said Washington defender Montez Sweat. “So I do not see myself treating Covid until I get Covid.”
The nightmare scenario for any team is for an unvaccinated player to endanger the health of someone on his team or someone they come in contact with. The grim scenario on the field is that they are forced to lose a game or two — and that they will have to pay for the privilege. It is a rift between the players and the staff of the team that will rumble throughout the season. The league has introduced a competitive advantage in its protocol, and it is now a race to see which teams can persuade or pull their roster to take a hit on their wings before compromising their season.
“I just do not understand,” Viking coach Mike Zimmer said this week. “It simply came to our notice then [get the vaccine].. “