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NFL takes the gloves off in the fight to get players vaccinated

Allen And Company Annual Meeting Brings Business Executives, Media Moguls, And Politicians To Sun Valley, Idaho Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

There have been consistent reports from the media that the Washington Football Team is among the NFL teams with the lowest rates of vaccination. Today there is a report that, as of two weeks ago, the vaccination rate for the WFT was at just 36%, but that currently all NFL teams are above 50%.

Defensive end Montez Sweat, in particular, raised eyebrows with comments during his minicamp press conference stating that he was not happy about the team bringing in an expert to promote the vaccines, and adding that he didn’t plan to get vaccinated. Sweat explained that since he hadn’t caught COVID, he didn’t see any reason to treat it.

At that time, Ron Rivera was, publicly at least, very accepting of different points of view, saying that if the team was below the league’s targeted vaccination threshold and was required to jump through some hoops to comply with protocols, they would do it, just as they did in 2020.

The ground may have shifted under coach Rivera’s feet today with the release of a memo from the league office announcing policies that have to do with positive COVID tests and the possibility of teams forfeiting games.

Per the memo, if a game cannot be rescheduled during the 18-week season in 2021 due to a COVID outbreak among unvaccinated players, the team with the outbreak will FORFEIT and be credited with a loss for playoff seeding. The memo adds that the team responsible for a canceled game (because of an outbreak among unvaccinated players/staff) will be responsible for financial losses and subject to potential discipline from the commissioner.

The memo states, ”We do not anticipate adding a ‘19th week’ to accommodate games that cannot be rescheduled within the current 18 weeks of the regular season.”

This set of newly announced policies puts pressure on players to get vaccinated because, under the current policies, vaccinated players who test positive and are asymptomatic can return to duty after two negative tests 24 hours apart, while unvaccinated players remain subject to mandatory 10-day isolation period. Clearly, unvaccinated players are at greater risk of missing games due to the potentially longer isolation requirement, and that puts the team at greater risk of losing due to a forfeit.

Up to this point, there’s no real sting in it for players, but the NFL wasn’t done yet.

The memo stresses that, ”If a club cannot play due to a Covid spike in vaccinated individuals, we will attempt to minimize the competitive and economic burden on both participating teams,” but then it goes on to add that “if a game is cancelled and cannot be rescheduled within the current 18-week scheduled due to a Covid outbreak, neither team’s players will receive their weekly paragraph 5 salary.”

That means that if a game is cancelled and cannot be rescheduled, no player on either team gets his game check. That’s 1/18th of the season’s base salary gone!

Roger Goodell is not messing around!

The memo goes on to say, ”Every club is obligated under the Constitution and Bylaws to have its team ready to play at the scheduled time and place. A failure to do so is deemed conduct detrimental. There is no right to postpone a game.”

The league has drawn a line in the sand, and it seems as if any club that lags behind on vaccination rates will risk the potential forfeiture of games, the franchise may be held accountable for the revenue losses incurred by the league, and players could find themselves losing a significant chunk of their annual salary.

I’m not sure if this will change Ron Rivera’s approach to players, but even if he wants to continue to talk softly to them about the benefits of getting vaccinated, the league has just offered him a great big stick to use in persuading them, if he chooses to use it.

Even without a push from the head coach, however, players like Montez Sweat may find themselves suddenly under pressure from teammates, and even players from opposing teams, all of whom will run the risk of losing money if players choose not to get the vaccine in the coming days and weeks.