The National Football League (NFL) has announced they will enforce strict new COVID vaccination, masking and testing rules this football season due to the availability of experimental COVID-19 vaccines, which are currently being distributed under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) granted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The NFL lost an estimated three to four billion dollars last year during the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns and social distancing restrictions. It appears the league has determined that the best way to avoid more financial losses this year is to mandate that all players get vaccinated.1
The NFL’s new regulations have the potential to cause dissension within football teams as vaccinated and unvaccinated players are subject to different rules. Only unvaccinated players are required to wear masks at team facilities and during travel and must undergo daily COVID testing. Unlike vaccinated players, those who have declined to get COVID-19 vaccinations are not permitted to leave the hotel or interact with anyone outside the organization when traveling. Failure to adhere to these rules could lead to a fine of up to $50,000.
NFL Players Segregated by Vaccination Status
The unvaccinated players are forced to take separate planes when traveling to games, must isolate and dine apart from their vaccinated teammates and may not go to restaurants when traveling. Unvaccinated players are not permitted to use the team sauna or steam room and will be subject to a mandatory 10-day quarantine should they find themselves in contact with a person who has tested positive for the virus, whether they have symptoms or even test positive themselves, while vaccinated players need only show two negative tests 24 hours apart.2 3
In addition to severely restricting movements of unvaccinated players, the NFL also is attempting to silence them. Unvaccinated players are forbidden to have social, media, marketing or promotion opportunities.4 Taking into consideration that no person, whether they have been vaccinated or not, can transmit an infection virtually, this restriction punishes players for making an informed medical decision they have determined will best protect their health and athletic performance.
Unvaccinated players in the NFL can easily be identified by the special colored bands all players are required to wear to denote their vaccination status. According to one media report:
There might not be a red “A” on the jerseys, but unvaccinated players will bear their own scarlet letter as NFL training camps open this week. In Pittsburgh, players without the COVID-19 vaccine donned yellow wristbands. In Tampa Bay, vaccinated players wore red wristbands and their unvaccinated teammates had on yellow ones.5
Collective Bargaining Agreement Prevents Vaccine Mandates As Condition of Employment
NFL rules stop just short of requiring the vaccine for players to be employed by the NFL. A collective bargaining agreement between the players union and the NFL prevents a vaccine mandate.6 The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) represented the players in the 2020 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement including such matters as health and discipline.7 Collective Bargaining Agreements are agreements made by and between labor union representatives and management organizations that set forth the rules and regulations for a set period of time.8
The new COVID-19 vaccination, testing and social distancing rules for players will remain in effect until 2030. The rules stipulate that if a scheduled game is not be able to take place due to an outbreak caused by an unvaccinated player, the offending team will be forced to forfeit the game and give their opponent the win. The offending team will have to cover the financial loss of the canceled game, as well as other punishment determined by commissioner Roger Goodell.9 Furthermore, neither team will be paid for the missed game.10 11
NFL Players Speak Out in Support of Teammates’ Vaccine Choices
These new rules have caused strife among the players in a sport where one is often expected to “take one for the team.” Five-time pro bowler, Deandre Hopkins of the Arizona Cardinals who has no plans to take the vaccine, tweeted,
Never thought I would say this, but being put in a position to hurt my team because I don’t want to partake in the vaccine is making me question my future in the @NFL.12
Meanwhile, Team Captain of the New England Patriots, David Andrews, encouraged a message of inclusiveness,
I think we’re all grown men and we can all make decisions for ourselves. We all have to make decisions that are best for us, our family and also the team. It’s OK to have different options. I think that’s what makes this world all right sometimes. You can have differing opinions and still respect one another.13
Cole Beasley of the Buffalo Bills also spoke up for the unvaccinated players,
I wanted to start this off by saying, I’m not anti- or pro-vax. I’m pro choice, With that being said, the issue at hand is: Information is being withheld from players in order for a player to be swayed in a direction he may not be comfortable with. When dealing with a player’s health and safety, there should be complete transparency regarding information that is vital in the decision-making process… With regard to our overall safety, we have to know we are armed with full knowledge and understanding that those who are in a position to help will always do that based on our individual situation.
Some people may think I’m being selfish in making this a ‘me’ thing. It’s all about the young players who don’t have a voice and are reaching out to me every day because they’re being told if they don’t get vaxxed, they’ll be cut.. I will conclude by saying we all want to be safe. For so many players around the NFL, safety does not solely mean avoiding the COVID virus. Our health is the now and years beyond, which we are trying to protect with our personal choice while doing all the things we did in our protocol during a very successful 2020 NFL season. (emphasis added)14 15
Former pro, Ben Watson also stated,
I feel strongly about the right of players to make their own decisions concerning the COVID-19 vaccine. I also understand the importance of protecting the health and safety of the locker room and staff. But it is disingenuous for the NFL to impose disparate penalties for players/clubs during outbreaks based solely on vaccination status, while simultaneously claiming to support player decisions. That is coercion and it’s obvious.16
NFL Pressure on Players Yields 85 Percent One-Dose Vaccination Rate
Individual teams have taken measures to increase vaccination in their clubs by holding on-site vaccination clinics and, with the NFL’s urging, have conducting information sessions extolling the benefits of the vaccine. However, Montez Sweat of the Washington Football Team said that he has no plans to take the vaccine even after the team had one of the creators of the Moderna vaccine talk to players.17
So far, the NFL’s vaccine promotion campaigns and coercive rules have yielded a vaccination rate of 85 percent among players getting at least one shot, and vaccination rates of over 90 percent for 14 of the 32 teams.18 The high vaccination rates among NFL players raises questions about whether punitive sanctions for remaining unvaccinated has deprived players of the right to exercise voluntary, informed consent to use of a medical product that does entail risks to a person’s health should a serious reaction occur.
Ryan Tannehill appears to have felt the pressure from the NFL to get vaccinated.
I’m currently in the process right now [of being vaccinated.] The NFL has kind of made it clear what they want to happen. If you don’t fall in line, they’re going to make your life miserable with all the protocols. I wouldn’t have gotten the vaccine without the protocols that they’re enforcing on us. I think it’s a personal decision for everyone. Everyone has to make the best decision for them and their families. That’s kind of our mindset in this building. But they’re trying to force your hand, and they ultimately have forced a lot of hands by the protocols.19
NFL Mandates COVID-19 Vaccine for Coaches, Trainers and Support Staff Too
While NFL players are effectively coerced into getting the COVID-19 vaccine, the coaches, trainers and support staff have a strict requirement to take the vaccine unless they file a medical or religious exemption that is accepted by NFL management. Coaches, trainers and support staff refusing to comply with what is effectively a vaccine mandate as a condition of employment will lose their Tier 1 status. This means they would be banned from the field, meeting rooms and direct interaction with the players.20 21
NFL Veteran Coaches Fired for Refusing COVID-19 Vaccinations
A number of support staff in the NFL have been demoted or lost their jobs for making a medical decision in their best interest rather than following the new NFL rules. Rick Dennison, a Minnesota Vikings line coach and run game coordinator and 27 year veteran coach, who initially was reported to be the first NFL Assistant Coach fired for refusing the vaccine, is now said to have reached a deal allowing him to remain with the team as long as all COVID protocols are followed and he has no direct contact with the players he is coaching.22
Cole Popovich who has been with the New England Patriots for seven years and served as a co-offensive line coach is out of a job for refusing to take the vaccine.23
Pat Ralph of the Philly Voice thinks the driving force behind the rule changes in the NFL comes down to money.
But at the end of the day, this was a decision driven by the bottom line. After a season where stadiums were largely empty without fans, the NFL is doing everything it can to recoup the money it lost. Stadiums like Lincoln Financial Field will be back at full capacity this fall. Playing fewer games means less money for all stakeholders — players, coaches, front offices, owners, advertisers, television partners, etc. Having as many players, coaches and staff fully vaccinated is the path to getting the NFL back to where it wants to be financially. The NFL has determined that the COVID-19 vaccine is good for business.24
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1 Associated Press. NFL has major, but not crippling, revenue loss during coronavirus pandemic. Chicago Sun Times Jan 29, 2021.
2 Jonas M. NFL reveals extensive restrictions for unvaccinated players in training camp COVID-19 protocols. USA Today June 16, 2021.
3 Young M. Former Texans star DeAndre Hopkins questions NFL future because he won’t get vaccine. Houston Chronicle July 22, 2021.
4 Datore, J. Unvaccinated NFL players will have a much, much more difficult season under new rules. SB Nation. June 16, 2021.
5 Daniels M. Understanding the NFL’s COVID vaccine policy and how it affects the Patriots. Providence Journal July 28, 2021.
6 SportsDay Staff. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on why NFL can’t mandate players to take COVID-19 vaccines. The Dallas Morning News July 27, 2021.
7 Datore, J. Unvaccinated NFL players will have a much, much more difficult season under new rules. SB Nation. June 16, 2021.
8 Gordon J. Collective Bargaining Agreement Explained. The Business Professor June 25, 2021.
9 Walker P. NFL: Teams will forfeit games that can’t be rescheduled due to COVID-19 outbreaks among unvaccinated. CBS Sports July 22, 2021.
10 Daniels M. Understanding the NFL’s COVID vaccine policy and how it affects the Patriots. Providence Journal July 28, 2021.
11 McKenna H. NFL players react to league rules about potential forfeits for teams with unvaccinated outbreaks USA Today July 22, 2021.
12 Young M. Former Texans star DeAndre Hopkins questions NFL future because he won’t get vaccine. Houston Chronicle July 22, 2021.
13 Daniels M. Understanding the NFL’s COVID vaccine policy and how it affects the Patriots. Providence Journal July 28, 2021.
14 Williams C. Cole Beasley claims COVID-19 vaccine information being withheld from players. Pro Football Talk July 28, 2021.
15 Gryboski M. Ben Watson opposes NFL forcing players to get COVID-19 vaccines, calls it ‘coercion’. Christian Post Reporter July 26, 2021.
16 Hill J. Gentle Encouragement Wasn’t Going to Be Enough. The Atlantic July 28, 2021.
17 Shook N. Eighty-five percent of NFL players have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. NFL July 27, 2021.
18 Davenport T. Titans’ Ryan Tannehill: NFL ‘trying to force our hands’ on COVID-19 vaccines. ESPN July 28, 2021.
19 Falconer R. NFL effectively mandates COVID vaccinations for coaches and other staff. Yahoo! News Apr. 13, 2021.
20 Multiple assistant coaches to lose Tier 1 status unless they receive first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. NFL June 4, 2021.
21 Florio M. Vikings, Rick Dennison agree on a deal that he’ll remain with the team. NBC Sports July 27, 2021.
22 Smith MD. Report: Rick Dennison out as Vikings assistant coach after refusing COVID-19 vaccine. Pro Football Talk July 23, 2021.
23 Cronin C. Rick Dennison out as Minnesota Vikings assistant after refusing COVID-19 vaccine, sources say. ESPN July 23, 2021.
24 Ralph P. NFL sends clear message on COVID-19 vaccine as Eagles open training camp. Philly Voice July 26, 2021.