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How Vaccine Hesitancy Among Players Is Affecting NFL Teams

June 10, 2021 12:15PM
GamePlan: How Vaccine Hesitancy Among Players Is Affecting NFL Teams

Albert Breer

[www.si.com]

One after another on Wednesday, the revelations came on the delayed pace NFL teams are dealing with on player vaccinations.

“I haven’t been vaccinated yet,” Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold told the local media. “Still gotta think about all those certain things that go into it. Again, it’s everyone’s choice, whether they wanna get vaccinated or not. So, that’s really all I got on it. I don’t wanna go too into detail.”

Fair, of course, since these are personal decisions.

“Obviously, [the coaches] want everybody to be vaccinated to move more freely around the facility, and with traveling and all that type of stuff,” said Washington defensive end Montez Sweat. “But everybody has their own beliefs, and they’re entitled to their own decision.”

That’s also reasonable.

But here’s the one thing that you can’t say about this issue: that it won’t have an impact on NFL teams six or seven weeks from now when training camps kick off. And if it might impact training camps, then it might impact how teams come out of the gate in September. And if it might affect how teams come out of the gate in September, then it might have an effect on what the playoff brackets look like. And you get the picture.

That’s one reason why, over the last few weeks, coaches have worked exhaustively with their players, like Sweat said, and beaten through every avenue possible to try and get them every bit of information they can on the work Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have done to get us all here, and what players will be putting in their bodies if they make the decision more than 140 million Americans [and counting] already have.

Those coaches all know this will start to count very soon.

And that’s regardless of where anyone stands philosophically of getting vaccinated for COVID-19.

We’re about a week away from the NFL’s shutting down for the summer (and my own summer break), but there’s plenty for us to dive into in this week’s GamePlan. Inside the column, you’ll find …

• The next installment of our preseason award favorites series—Coach of the Year.

• A look at why the NFL is getting aggressive about growing in Germany.

• How bad predraft advice can leave promising players holding the bag.

But we’re starting with the big news topic for this week, which is how NFL teams are trying, and sometimes in vain, to get their players vaccinated.

On Tuesday night, Washington coach Ron Rivera brought in leading immunologist Kizzmekia S. Corbett—who helped lead research that aided in the development of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine—to speak to his players, lay out the benefits of getting the shots and answer any questions they had.

Rivera also told the local media that while 100% of the team’s Tier 1 employees are vaccinated, the player rate is just “nearing 50%.” Which, of course, would be good reason for the coach to enlist someone like Corbett to address the team.

Other NFL teams have had more luck.

The Chiefs are one with a relatively high vaccination rate, and one factor that was brought up repeatedly by those within the team is the fact that Patrick Mahomes was among the very first to get his shots. Across the league, it seems at least anecdotally, there’s been a natural effect where if the biggest names/brightest stars are getting vaccinated, others follow suit.

In fact, I mentioned the Mahomes thing to one rival GM, and he said he’d heard that of the teams with high vaccination rates, where “those teams tended to have five or six stars get it early on. And if you have five or six stars doing it, they all start to do it.”

Kansas City coach Andy Reid and head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder also have engaged players in very open and honest conversation while trying to convey what they know. “It’s basically been, It’s up to you guys; it’s all voluntary, but here are the facts,” a Chiefs staffer said. “And Andy has kept them abreast of all the rules changes, too.”

The Falcons are another team that’s approached it like that, and Atlanta has gotten a high rate of vaccinations as a result of it. That quarterback Matt Ryan, like Mahomes, was among the first to get his shots was a factor, too, as was Ryan’s willingness to discuss it with his teammates. And new Falcons coach Arthur Smith approached it with the players similar to how Reid did with his—giving them the facts, encouraging them to talk about it with the team’s doctors and trainers, and being sure not to pressure or guilt-trip them.

The Steelers are one more that’s had success, with a player vaccination rate currently sitting between 75% and 80%. Coach Mike Tomlin’s done it by deferring mostly to head athletic trainer John Norwig, who’s going into his 31st season with the team and has the players’ implicit trust. It’s also helped that team leaders, like defensive lineman Cam Heyward, have been advocates and diligent about getting their teammates educated.

Now, at this point, it’s still reasonable to say that these personal choices don’t really affect the teams, or the players’ individual ability to get ready for the season through the spring, even if it’s become obvious to everyone in these buildings who’s vaccinated and who’s not (all you have to do is see who’s in a mask and who’s not).

But things will likely get considerably less comfortable for unvaccinated players in a few weeks.

The league and union are still working out details on how training camp protocols will look, but the current state of the rules can provide a window into the future on that.

• Unvaccinated players still have daily testing; vaccinated players do not.

• Unvaccinated players have to wear masks; vaccinated players do not.

• Unvaccinated players must quarantine after COVID-19 exposure; vaccinated players don’t need to.

• Travel restrictions have been lifted for vaccinated players; they remain in place for unvaccinated players.

• There are capacity limits in the weight room for unvaccinated players; there aren’t for vaccinated players.

• Unvaccinated players have to do grab-and-go meals at the facility; vaccinated players can eat in the cafeteria.

• Unvaccinated players can’t participate in in-person marketing/media opportunities; vaccinated players can.

• Unvaccinated players can’t use the sauna or steam room; vaccinated players can.

And then, there’s the prospect that, between now and camp, the NFL and NFLPA could push over the goal line a proposal further easing restrictions on teams that have 85% of players vaccinated.

So if you look at all this, just on the surface, the impact is obvious. Teams with large groups of unvaccinated players, come training camp, will have to lift, meet and socialize with one another in different ways than teams that are largely vaccinated. The fact is, camp is a challenging time of year for every team, and, obviously, these circumstances would make it more challenging for some teams than others, tipping the competitive-balance scale a little.

After that, you can dig into the less obvious. The first one is how testing adds about 45 minutes to a player’s day, and how coaches might not be building schedules around those 45 minutes the same way they were to accommodate everyone a year ago. The second, relating to that, is how daily testing will keep guys in town on days off, during the bye weekend (Labor Day weekend) between the preseason and regular season, and then during the TNF “mini-bye” and the normal regular-season bye.

Then, there are travel restrictions—where unvaccinated players may well again be confined to their rooms on the road, and unable to visit with family and friends during trips.

And there’s more, too, that will wear on players over time, and could have an effect on performance. And yes, this is the same stuff that players went through last year. But this year, guys dealing with it will be playing against a lot of players who won’t have to.

No matter where coaches might personally come down on this, they all realize there’s a competitive advantage, or disadvantage, to be had there. Which has been enough to convince every one of them I hit up to make sure their players have every piece of information possible as the clock ticks toward training camp.

So what’s stopping players from getting the vaccine? For the most part, it’s the same things that are slowing the rate in certain parts of the country.

In discussing the subject with teams the last couple of days, most of the areas of trepidation cited are familiar ones across the U.S.—right-leaning political beliefs, conspiracy theories, the history of these things in Black culture. Others are more football-specific. One coach told me he has a holdout who’s never had a flu shot, doesn’t drink and is ultra-careful with what he puts in his body, who asked, “Why should I start now?” Then there’s the simpler, “I’m not going to be told what to do” reasoning.

Wherever guys land on it, for all of those who haven’t had the vaccine, time is running short. And teams are going to greater lengths to try to make it easy for players who are still mulling it over to get vaccinated.

The Bengals are one that set up a June 17 vaccination day for players at Paul Brown Stadium, which will be the fourth one they’ve done this spring. It’s being sold to the guys as a last chance to have a completely normal training camp—because if you get your first shot on June 17, your second would be on or around July 8, and the two-week post-second-shot waiting period would then end July 22, right before most teams have their reporting date.

At this point, Cincinnati’s in pretty good shape, hovering around 65% and needing maybe nine or 10 more guys to get the vaccine to cross the 85% threshold. So chances are, the Bengals will have a relatively normal camp.

And that might end up mattering more than people think when we get to the season.
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