COVID-19 Vaccination Status Will Be Major Theme This NFL Season

By Patrick Hayes   September 5, 2021 

COVID-19 Vaccination Status Will Be Major Theme This NFL Season

Minnesota Vikings offensive assistant coach Rick Dennison reportedly lost his job over his unwillingness to get the COVID-19 vaccine. After the New England Patriots released Cam Newton, there were reports that his unwillingness to get the vaccine played into that decision. Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold expressed vaccine skepticism early in the offseason, received significant public backlash, and ultimately changed his mind and got the vaccine.

Dennison ended up being re-assigned as an advisor and Newton will undoubtedly catch on with another team, but the impact of COVID-19 on the NFL will be felt throughout the 2021 season as the Delta variant causes cases to surge across the United States.

With bigger rosters than any other sport, the NFL is uniquely susceptible to outbreaks. That reality has likely fueled the league and several franchises are taking major steps to promote vaccinations. In fact, the league recently said that it favors a vaccine mandate for all players (about 93 percent are currently vaccinated according to reports), although the players’ union has said the league has not yet asked for or negotiated a mandate.

Apr 29, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wears a sticker that reads “COVID-19 Vaccinated” in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft at First Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Rather than a firm mandate, the league has instead implemented strict policies for unvaccinated players that include wearing masks in team facilities and quarantine rules for being close contacts of people who test positive. Teams have also taken steps to promote the vaccine. The Minnesota Vikings brought in an infectious disease expert to talk with players about the vaccine. Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians has said that the Bucs will have strict team policies related to COVID and, he hopes, 100 percent of their players vaccinated by the time the season starts. Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera who, like Arians, is a cancer survivor, has spoken passionately about vaccine misinformation and even addressed it with players on his team who have spread inaccurate information on their personal social media accounts.

The Las Vegas Raiders have taken things even beyond their team, requiring fans attending games show proof of vaccination.

“After consultation with Governor Steve Sisolak and other community leaders, this policy ensures that we will be able to operate at full capacity without masks for fully vaccinated fans for the entire season,” team owner Mark Davis said in a statement.

Davis’ statement gets to the heart of what the NFL’s intention is – to try its best to protect the on-field product and revenue from not having the season disrupted by outbreaks. All teams were hurt financially by limited or no-capacity games last season. Having full stadiums allows the league to try and more quickly recoup those losses.

The other factor that the strict protocols are meant to encourage is keeping key players on the field. Newton is among a handful of high-profile players who have expressed vaccine hesitancy publicly. Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins and Indianapolis’ Carson Wentz aren’t vaccinated, and Wentz might not be available for the season-opener due to being a close contact of a person who tested positive. Wentz needs consecutive negative tests after quarantining to be allowed to rejoin the team.

While Wentz hasn’t publicly addressed his personal feelings on the vaccine, Cousins has said he won’t get it. If the NFL mandates it and Cousins still refuses it on religious grounds, he could be forced to sit out the season. 

The Buffalo Bills also had the issue bubble up recently, by showing the close nature of positional groups on teams. Receiver Cole Beasley, a vocal anti-vaxxer, and receiver Gabriel Davis were both close contacts of a team trainer who tested positive, forcing both to be away from the team for five days. 

If, say, a quarterback had the virus without symptoms and then went to a meeting, everyone in the quarterback room would potentially be a close contact and a team could suddenly find itself without any quarterbacks for five days or more.

Teams made it through last season without any games being canceled and navigated those challenges before a vaccine was widely available. Now that vaccination is possible, the NFL is clearly going to do whatever it can to avoid risking any cancellations or competitive imbalances as a result of the pandemic this season.

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