NFL tensions rise over vaccine rules

Tensions are running high in the NFL over COVID-19 vaccinations, with a vocal minority of players and coaches criticizing rules mandated by the league that are intended to raise the vaccination rate of team players and staff.

The NFL actually has a high vaccination rate, according to statistics released by the league.

It said last week that nearly 90 percent of players had received at least one vaccine dose and that 19 teams had more than 90 percent of their players vaccinated.

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Those figures are higher than the rates for the nation at large, which is struggling with the ramped-up delta variant — a highly contagious form of the virus that has led to increased cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Yet the number of unvaccinated players is complicating plans for various teams, and stoking irritations between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.

Delta’s prominence comes at a dangerous time for the NFL, which is preparing to open the regular season in September. Teams had to reduce attendance for last season, but they are planning to open with full stadiums in the fall for a new 17-game season.

The vaccines provide protection from the delta variant, and taking a vaccine makes one much less likely to get seriously ill, be hospitalized or die from the delta variant.

The NFL has instituted rules meant to entice players to get vaccinated, some of which have triggered a backlash.

Most notably, if a team has an outbreak of COVID-19 caused by unvaccinated players or staff, and the game has to be rescheduled, the team with the outbreak will forfeit the game. Players on both teams will have to forfeit their weekly salary if a game gets forfeited due to an outbreak. 

The NFL has also eased certain restrictions for players who are vaccinated who are attending training camp. Vaccinated players don’t have to be tested as much as unvaccinated players or staff, and they don’t have to go through severe contract tracing quarantines. 

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The league also shared that they will penalize unvaccinated players for more than $14,000 if they violate their COVID-19 protocols, according to an ESPN report.

These rules have not been universally accepted.

Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, New England Patriots defensive end Matthew Judon and former quarterback Derek Anderson are among the most high-profile people who have expressed their displeasure.

Anderson focused on how vaccinated players who contract the virus will not be punished while an unvaccinated player will.

 

“This is total bullshit @nfl. So if a vaccinated player contracts which they will, no consequences? That’s ridiculous,” Anderson wrote in his Twitter thread. “Forcing guys to get a emergency use vax that’s unproven is bullshit. Let them make their own decisions. Would retire tomorrow if I was still playing.”

In a now-deleted tweet, Hopkins, who was selected to three All-Pro teams, said the new mandate has him questioning his future in the league. 

“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,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins followed the deleted tweet with a much shorter, bold one.

 

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A small minority of players and staff who do not want to get vaccinated have pushed back against the rules. 

It was first reported by ESPN that assistant coach Rick Dennison left his position as an offensive line coach for the Minnesota Vikings after refusing to get vaccinated. 

According to the league memo, it’s mandatory for all tier one team staff — coaches, front-office members, equipment managers and scouts — to be vaccinated. 

Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said last week that Dennison will remain on the team as a senior offensive adviser after both sides agreed to let him remain on the team throughout the duration of the 2021 season, according to ESPN. 

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley has become the most widely known opponent of vaccines in the NFL.

At a press conference last week, he said that he is “pro-choice,” and that more information should come out for players to know more about getting vaccinated. 

While saying he won’t comment on his anti-vaccination stance, Beasley released a rap song called “Heavy 1s,” calling out the league’s vaccination with this lyric “ain’t no vaccination for me, only evacuation save ’em homie.”

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“To shut my mouth you’re going to have to kill me. If freedom of speech and freedom of choice go out the window then there’s no freedom at all,” Beasley sang. 

Also, notable star quarterbacks including Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, and Kirk Cousins have not disclosed whether they received their vaccine shot, saying that it violates their Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act rights. 

Cousins, who this week was placed on his team’s COVID-19/reserve list, said Thursday that he would rather follow his team’s COVID-19 protocol than get the vaccine, saying that he would surround himself with plexiglass in order to stop the spread. 

 

The NFL has been unapologetic for its aggressive efforts to entice people to get vaccinated, sending the signal that it sees vaccinations as important to successfully carrying out the season.

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In 2020, the NFL struggled to complete its regular-season games during the pandemic. This led to league officials postponing games to later dates due to certain clubs having COVID-19 outbreaks which made clubs close their facilities in the process. 

The Tennessee Titans had 24 players on their roster miss multiple contests due to positive tests and close contact. 

In November, the Denver Broncos had to start a rookie wide receiver Kendall Hinton as the emergency quarterback in their contest against the New Orleans Saints since all three of their quarterbacks were exposed to the virus and placed in quarantine, ESPN reported.

Some high-profile figures in the league also have expressed frustration at the unvaccinated, mirroring frustration that has been evident in the world at large.

Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera said during a press conference last week that he’s “beyond frustrated” with his team’s low vaccination rates. 

Washington had seven players on its COVID-19/reserve list, including offensive guard Brandon Scherff, wide receiver Curtis Samuel, and defensive end Matt Ioannidis.

Rivera, who was diagnosed with and survived squamous cell carcinoma, a type of cancer, is immunocompromised, making him predisposed to suffer severe illness from coronavirus. 

“Yeah, I am, I'm truly frustrated. I'm beyond frustrated,” Rivera said. “Part of it is, and the reason I walked in with a mask on is, you know, I'm immunodeficient. So with this new variant, who knows?”

Ever since voicing his frustrations, Washington has seen its team’s vaccination rate tick up, clearing the league’s threshold of 85 percent on Wednesday, ESPN Washington Football Team beat reporter John Keim reported.

Former NFL wide receiver Torrey Smith was one of the few players that had differing views on the recent debate on vaccinations, stating that players are overreacting to the new memo. 

“Why is everyone tripping over the NFL memo? It doesn’t force you to get vaccinated. It just says if you want to be the reason why things are worse, your team will pay,”  Smith wrote on Twitter. “There is a difference.”