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'A Competitive Advantage': In College Football, the Push for Vaccination Is On

Less than 90 days out from camp, the COVID-19 vaccine rate among some teams is troubling, experts say. But there's optimism that will change soon despite some skepticism among players.

TUCSON — From Jedd Fisch’s perch on the outdoor terrace of the Arizona football facility, he can almost see the tops of the white tents lining University Boulevard.

There, just a quarter mile from his office and a stone’s throw from the Wildcats’ indoor practice field, is a mass vaccination center. The arranged tents rise up from the boulevard’s grassy median, wedged between dozens of roadside palm trees and insulated in the heart of campus.

The site, responsible for more than 250,000 vaccinations, is appropriately located—a convenient reminder to dozens of Arizona football players to have their arms jabbed.

“They’re walking past it, driving by it and seeing it every day,” says Fisch, the first-year Wildcats coach.

Within the Arizona football facility, they are hearing about it nearly every day, too. Fisch has brought in doctors from Harvard to discuss with the team the benefits of vaccination, has made sure his entire staff is vaccinated and preaches a daily motto to his players. “Bear Down,” he says, reciting UA’s longtime fight phrase, “and Vax Up!”

A sign for COVID-19 vaccines

“The vaccine is a competitive advantage,” Fisch says. “I [tell] our players all the time, ‘If you can get a vaccine that would prevent an ACL, you’d take it.’ ”

Predictably, Fisch’s team has one of the highest vaccination rates of any college football program in the country. The Wildcats are nearing the 90% mark.

But that’s not the case for many teams.

Two weeks before summer training begins and less than two months before fall camp opens, dozens of college football teams are struggling to vaccinate their athletes. Similar to the country’s regional discrepancy in COVID-19 protocols, the U.S. is a fractured mess as it relates to the vaccine. And that goes for universities as well.

Some, such as Ohio State, Notre Dame and Navy, have at least 90% of their football team vaccinated. Others, like Clemson, Charlotte and Ole Miss, are below the 20% mark. And then there are those like Tennessee, Oregon State and Troy, hovering around 50–60%.

While administrators expect a surge of vaccinations when players return to campus in June, many of them fear that athletes will continue to eschew the shots for some of the same reasons as those in the general population—religious beliefs, conspiracy theories and misplaced guidance from others.

“The low vaccination rates are worrisome,” says one ACC school administrator who asked for anonymity. “I’m battling trying to figure out how to normalize this vaccine.”

Though college-age people often experience little to no ill effects from COVID-19, vaccinations are imperative, NCAA medical experts say. They clear a path back to normalcy. A team reaching enough vaccinations will likely avoid the coronavirus protocols and disruptions that marked the 2020 season.

In fact, officials expect a different set of protocols for those vaccinated and unvaccinated. Players choosing not to vaccinate will find themselves subject to contact-tracing and quarantine rules—the biggest disrupter of 2020—as well as regular testing. Those vaccinated will be exempt from such. In short, COVID-19 outbreaks on or around a team will likely affect only unvaccinated players and staff.

Schools, conferences and the NCAA are hoping protocol exemptions are enough incentive for athletes to get vaccinated.

Meanwhile, a deadline approaches. The clock is ticking on the opening of camp.

“The two-shot vaccines take six weeks to be fully effective,” says Jeff Dugas, Troy’s team doctor and an orthopedic surgeon in Birmingham who chairs the Sun Belt’s COVID-19 advisory panel. “They need to be vaccinated by mid-June. They’ve got five weeks before they need to have the first shot.”

Some believe it is far too early to panic, though. At Clemson, the Tigers are only at a 10% vaccination level, but athletic director Dan Radakovich expects a sharp increase in shots when players return from their annual May break for summer workouts, partly because of the shot’s now-plentiful accessibility levels. In some places, the vaccine only recently became available to everyone.

Many athletes declined the shot while in the middle of spring football practice so as not to miss time because of post-vaccine illness—another reason why administrators and medical experts expect a June uptick. Also this summer, doctors expect the FDA to formally approve the Pfizer vaccine, lifting it from emergency use to a full licensure, a move that could ease concerns around the shot, says Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University and an infectious disease physician who sat on the NCAA COVID-19 advisory panel last summer.

Adalja says that a fully vaccinated person is extremely unlikely, about a 0.007%, to spread COVID-19 if they contract it.

“The more people that are vaccinated the closer we get towards a level of immunity that makes it less likely to spread,” he says.

The U.S. is vaccinating at a breakneck pace compared to other countries. Per the CDC, more than 44% of the country’s adults are fully vaccinated and nearly 60% of U.S. adults have received at least one dose. Yet, there are striking disparities among states.

For instance, in California, the rate of doses disbursed is 85,000 for every 100,000 people. In Mississippi, that number is 56,000. Excluding Florida, no Southern state—the heart of SEC football country—is above the 68,000 mark.

“Vaccination can shift the testing requirement away,” says SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who got the vaccine earlier this spring. “Looking forward, it removes people from close contact isolation. The bulk of game disruption was an outcome of contact tracing and quarantine. If we can move beyond that reality, that presents a return towards normal.”

College sports personalities have championed the vaccine for months now, publicly stumping for their coaches, staff and athletes to get jabbed in an effort similar to last summer’s masking movement. However, they are walking an even finer line with the vaccine.

Masks were mandatory at many places, even within the SEC, but that’s not the case with this shot. Sankey, for instance, says the league is using the word “recommended” in its efforts.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, many conferences and schools are holding mass Zoom calls with athletes and their parents to encourage vaccination and dispel what Sankey says are theories from some “TV pundits and internet articles.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban joined the fray recently. Saban, Sankey, former Auburn basketball star Charles Barkley and former Auburn head coach turned U.S. senator Tommy Tuberville are set to appear next week in a public service announcement encouraging vaccination.

Already in some leagues, players are treated differently if they’ve gotten the shot. “And that’s O.K.,” says Adalja. “If the coronavirus treats you differently,” he says, “others should treat you differently as well.”

"I got my vaccine at MSU" sticker

The American Athletic Conference stopped regularly testing those vaccinated six weeks ago, says Gregory Stewart, the AAC’s lead COVID-19 medical chief and the team doctor at Tulane. The SEC and Sun Belt have done the same.

In the SEC, if a team is 85% vaccinated, they are no longer required to wear masks at team facilities, a league spokesperson says. The conference is also exploring whether or not those teams can stop all regular testing.

“Will there be a competitive disadvantage for those at 10% vaccination? Yes, there will,” says Doug Aukerman, a longtime athletic physician and associate athletic director at Oregon State who chairs the Pac-12’s medical advisory board. “Players will get sick, contact tracing will knock out people, too.”

There will always be some segment of the population against vaccinations, says Tory Lindley, the president of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. For instance, about 3–5% of college athletes decline the flu shot each year. Lindley hopes the number of those eschewing the COVID-19 vaccine eventually declines to such levels.

“Currently vaccinations are ongoing on many campuses, so there is hope for increased numbers,” he says. “However, eventually we will reach the stage later this spring where everyone who chose to be vaccinated, will be vaccinated.”

This spring, athletes at several schools got a front-row seat to the differing protocols for those vaccinated and unvaccinated. At Cincinnati, for instance, a positive test resulted in a handful of players being deemed close contacts. A portion of those players were vaccinated and were not quarantined. The others were.

“The next day, we had a few players get the vaccine,” says coach Luke Fickell.

Still, many athletes are skeptical. Johnson & Johnson’s announcement earlier this spring heightened fears, coaches say. The company, which had already given out nearly 7 million vaccines, paused its vaccination upon recommendation from the CDC and the FDA after six reports of blood clots. Eleven days later, the two organizations cleared it to resume.

There are other reasons that football players are forgoing the shot, officials say. They include antivaccination religious connections, fear of the post-vaccine illness, parental guidance and the uncertainty after a rapid deployment only approved for emergency use.

But the biggest reason might be found on the internet in the form of theories that have no scientific backing.

“I’ve had a player come to me and say, ‘Coach, the shot makes you sterile,’ ” says one coach who requested anonymity.

At Tulane, during a Zoom call with athletes and their parents, a player suggested to Stewart that the vaccine was part of a government effort to embed a tracking device in people. “You got the microchip implanted?” the athlete asked Stewart.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about the vaccine,” says Aukerman.

Administrators are mostly seeing football lag behind other sports. For instance, at Ole Miss, 15% of the football team is vaccinated, says athletic director Keith Carter. That’s well below the school’s total athlete population of 38%.

Given a history of medical mistreatment among people of color, those populations are often more skeptical of vaccinations than white people. That’s been the case even before this year, says Charles McClelland, the commissioner of the SWAC. McClelland, who is Black, got the shots earlier this spring, something that convinced his wife and two children—both SWAC athletes—to follow suit.

McClelland says his goal is to get SWAC teams to at least 70% to allow them to “open up everything fully.

“It’s a lead by example process,” he says. “I honestly think we’re going to get there once you get them in [for summer training] and it becomes a part of the process. We’re going to go to film session, practice and then vaccination.”

Convenience is a significant incentive for some athletes. Bring the shot to me.

Many schools are partnering with their local health departments or hospitals to have vaccines administered on campus. But not all schools have that luxury.

At New Mexico, athletic director Eddie Nuñez is in talks with his hospital to arrange such a deal. Even when vaccines were done at the school’s basketball arena, athletes were forced to sign up through the state health department, which assigned them to a vaccine location—sometimes not at the arena.

At Charlotte, Will Healy’s team is about 10% vaccinated, he estimates. Up until last week, the school operated under protocols that vaccinated athletes were only immune from contact tracing for three months. That rule has recently changed to match the CDC’s six-month immunization—a game-changer, Healy says. “It incentivizes our players.”

Some schools are making the vaccine mandatory before students return for in-person classes. That’s the case at Washington State, where Pat Chun is the athletic director. He shouldn’t have much issue with his football team reaching herd immunity if they want to stay enrolled in school.

“If you’re vaccinated, a lot of issues will be gone,” says Chun. “It’s the best guarantee you have to participation in the fall.”

In certain sectors of the country, mandating students get vaccinated is, politically, a long shot. The same goes for requiring fans to present vaccination cards upon entering a football stadium.

“That’s not going to happen in my state,” says one SEC athletic director who cited the political climate in his region of the country.

Conferences’ mandating the vaccine is “very challenging” as well, says Craig Thompson, commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, which features at least four schools that plan to make the vaccine mandatory.

“It would be helpful,” he says, “but you can’t force people.”

The vaccine disparities could result in more disruptions this fall, administrators say. A team that isn’t fully vaccinated could have an outbreak that results in a game cancellation before playing a team that is fully vaccinated. What happens then? Last year, the game was considered a no-contest. But with the vaccine readily available, should the game be considered a forfeit? “Yes, it should,” says Robert Robbins, the Arizona school president and former cardiothoracic surgeon.

Shane Lyons, a member of two rulemaking NCAA bodies, the Football Oversight and Division I Council, says discussions are ongoing about how to handle such a situation.

“There’s another scenario, too,” says Dugas, the Troy team doctor.

“You may find yourself playing in a place that mandates the vaccine,” he says. “What happens if your quarterback doesn’t have it? That could happen theoretically.

“You’re going to write stories about teams losing games because they didn’t get the vaccine,” he adds.

Back on Arizona’s campus, from that outdoor terrace, Fisch points toward a parking garage that hides UA’s tented vaccine station. On a sun-swept, sizzling May day, people filter in and out of the tents, some of them who could be athletes.

Fisch had just two players test positive for COVID-19 this spring. One was a false positive.

Things feel back to normal here, at least as close as they’ve been in months. When told of the low vaccine number elsewhere, Robbins quips, “I don’t get it. It doesn’t make sense to me. Line them up like in the Army and give it to them,” he says.

Arizona’s vaccine station has serviced people from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., through incredible heat and even snow and rain, he says. In fact, the Arizona women’s basketball team returned from the Final Four for a small gathering celebrating its season. After leaving the celebration, many of the players and staff, Robbins says, went directly to University Boulevard, drove their car underneath a tent, rolled down the window and got jabbed in the arm.

“It’s safe. It’s effective. It’s the right thing to do for you and all those around you,” Dugas says. “It’s the best protection we have not just for sports but for the population.”

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