The toughest opponents in the NFL this season? Unvaccinated players

he tenor and tone of the NFL’s approach to the pandemic has shifted as the league moves into its second season in a Covid world. Last year it was all kumbaya, rah-rah, football-will-guide-us-through-the-darkness type of rhetoric. There was a community aspect to the league’s attitude. Everybody worked to ensure that the season could go ahead and that the nation’s top entertainment vehicle did not default on any of its multibillion dollar contracts.

The league gave concessions to teams and the players. Safeguards were built in to try to protect the integrity of the competition. Players were not held personally responsible for testing positive or coming into contact with Covid. It was treated as a team-wide issue, a societal issue, not the fault of any single individual.

Not this year. Heading into the new season, the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, and team owners have signed off on some of the most stringent Covid guidelines this side of the military’s proposed vaccine mandate.

Changes to the NFL’s Covid-19 regulations for the upcoming season have turned vaccination rates among players and staff members into a form of an arms race. No longer will games be postponed. There is no extra week built into the season for make-up games. If your team deals with an outbreak, that’s on you. The message from the league office is clear: don’t want an outbreak? Get your roster, coaching staff, front office and administrative staff vaccinated.

The NFL is betting on market forces in a bid to head off any Broncos-style calamities that popped up during the last pandemic-hit season. There will be no more do-overs. It’s each man and team for themselves – may the most vaccinated win.

The league’s head office sent a memo to teams stating that if a game cannot be rescheduled during the league’s current 18-week schedule due to a Covid outbreak among unvaccinated players, the team with the outbreak will forfeit the game outright and will be credited with a loss.

Here’s the kicker: players on both teams will not be paid for the lost contest, and the team responsible for the cancelled game – the one with the outbreak – will cover the finances for the side without the outbreak. They will also be subject to further discipline from the commissioner’s office if it’s determined the outbreak was due to a team or player not correctly adhering to the league’s Covid protocol.

Last year the league did everything within its power to ensure no games were missed over the span of the then 17-week season. This season it’s over to the individuals, creating a natural dividing line between the haves and the have-nots: those who have taken a vaccine and those who have not.

As an abstract concept, freedom of choice and vaccine hesitancy would likely be viewed within a locker room as a personal issue. But once that choice shifts from the abstract to the real, once it starts to ding paychecks, much of the inter-locker room support will wash away.

Some players – Lamar Jackson, Kirk Cousins – have enough leverage by dint of their positional value and contract status to be able to ride out any issues or pressure this season. They will still receive the bulk of their paycheck no matter the knock-on effect on their team, teammates, family members, future earnings or legacy.

But the majority of an NFL roster holds no such value. Within the backend of rosters, the league’s strongarm tactics are working. Agents have reported that teams spent the summer checking in on the vaccine status of their back-of-the-roster clients. Want to be employed this season? Get the vaccine. Teams may be OK with adjusting their traditional practice structures for the starting quarterback, but not for a player looking to make the team as a third-string safety.

Unvaccinated players testing positive for Covid remain under the same 2020 protocols, meaning a 10-day isolation period and a return once asymptomatic. Any vaccinated and asymptomatic player can resume activity upon testing negative twice 24 hours apart. That’s a significant time difference. As the Washington head coach, Ron Rivera, recently outlined, that could result in his unvaccinated players missing two games as early as week one. Two losses could be the difference between a division title and people fighting for their jobs.

As a whole, the NFL’s vaccination numbers are strong compared with the 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 a vaccine; 15 teams have more than 95% of their players vaccinated. But the league is still not satisfied. It wants to hit its 100% target figure by week one of the regular season.

Dr Allen Sills, the chief medical officer for the NFL, has often cut a frustrated figure throughout the league’s vaccination efforts. And it’s no wonder. NFL players have access to world-class physicians; teams have brought in virologists to explain the vaccine process, from creation to administration; players have been able to ask questions directly to those involved in the creation of the vaccine. Yet there remains outspoken hesitancy to the vaccine throughout the league.

Buffalo’s Cole Beasley continues to bicker with his teammates publicly about his stance. One moment he’s simply a sceptic, not an anti-vaxxer; the next he’s releasing a vaccine-Fauci-sheeple diss track. Beasley’s stance has been so vociferous and public in the face of the league’s pseudo-mandate that it has led executives to wonder whether he’s intentionally trying to get himself cut by the Bills.

Beasley has been the face and voice of the NFL’s vaccine-sceptic movement, but he is far from the only one. Recently, the Vikings lost all three members of their quarterback room for several days of training camp after the rookie Kellen Mond tested positive for Covid. Both the team’s starting quarterback, Cousins, and the backup Nate Stanley were deemed to be in close contact with Mond and were forced to sit out under the league’s protocol.

Cousins drew the public ire of his coaching staff for his stance on the vaccine. His response: “I’m still doing research.” His follow-up: pondering whether or not he should sit in a perspex box inside the team’s facility in order to limit further disruption of the Vikings’ pre-season activities. His second follow-up: suggesting the team meets outside all season, even in the Minnesota winter.

Meanwhile Jackson, a former league MVP, ~이다 still unsure about getting the vaccine despite contracting Covid twice in the past 12 개월.

You have to wonder what resentments are fostered as teams continue to jump through hoops for unvaccinated players. From a cynical, non-health-based perspective, Jackson and Cousins have already put their teams and teammates at a significant competitive disadvantage by missing chunks of the pre-season, and the possibility that their status could affect games during the season will linger for all 18 주.

There will be further flashpoints of awkwardness. Already we’ve seen Rivera, who is immunocompromised after surviving cancer last year, publicly beg his players to get the vaccine. The response was a thudding silence; his team entered August with the lowest vaccination rate in the league. “I haven’t caught Covid yet,” the Washington defensive end Montez Sweat said. “So I don’t see me treating Covid until I actually get Covid.”

The nightmare scenario for any team is that an unvaccinated player compromises the health of someone on their team or someone they come into contact with. The bleak on-field scenario is that they’re forced to forfeit a game or two – and that they will have to pay for the privilege. It is a fissure between players and team personnel that will rumble on all season. The league has baked a competitive advantage into its protocol, and now it’s a race to see which teams can convince or cajole their roster into getting a shot in their arm before it compromises their season.

“I just don’t understand,” the Vikings head coach, Mike Zimmer, said this week. “We could just put this thing to bed if we’d all do this [get the vaccine].”

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