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The NFL Has Gone As Far As It Can on Vaccinations

A league memo sent Thursday—laying out more consequences—caught some players off-guard, and threatens to sharpen divides in locker rooms.

The NFL has gone as far as it can to compel players to get vaccinated against COVID-19, without explicitly requiring it. Players or team personnel who are unvaccinated will be subject to different individual protocols for the 2021 season than those who are vaccinated, but the memo the league issued to its member teams Thursday went a step further, delineating steeper consequences for potential outbreaks of the virus among unvaccinated players.

The memo makes clear that the NFL does not intend to add a 19th week to the schedule, and if a game cannot be rescheduled within the 18-week framework and thus must be canceled due to an outbreak of unvaccinated players, that club will forfeit the game. With a cancellation, players on both sides would not be paid their weekly salary.

This comes as players report to training camp amid the U.S.’s grappling with the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant—scientists have proved that vaccination is our best tool in curbing the pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans. On a Friday conference call Allen Sills, the league's chief medical officer, said that 80% of players have had at least one vaccination shot. But some prominent stars began speaking out against the new policies on social media: Cardinals WR DeAndre Hopkins tweeted, then deleted, that being in a position to hurt his team because he does not want to get the vaccine made him “question my future in the NFL.” Edge rusher Matthew Judon, who signed with the Patriots this offseason, expressed his displeasure with the players union.

The sharp divisions that exist in the U.S., which are often ignored or patched over within the context of team sports, will now be more apparent in NFL locker rooms. The league’s new rule attempts to balance a person’s bodily autonomy against its role in contributing to the collective welfare—while also protecting the owners’ pocketbooks.

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The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said that laws do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering a workplace to be vaccinated—a step the NFL has not taken—as long as they offer reasonable accommodations according to disability laws and civil rights non-discrimination protections. Unvaccinated players can still take part in their jobs this season, something the union worked to ensure was the case, but are subject to the more stringent protocols of the 2020 season, including daily testing, required mask usage at the facility and a mandatory quarantine after a high-risk exposure to COVID-19 (none of which apply to fully vaccinated players). Players have known since June that these rules would be in place.

The new policies announced Thursday further raise the stakes by increasing the potential competitive disadvantage for teams with a high percentage of unvaccinated players, as well as introducing possible financial penalties for both players and clubs, which would also lose money in event of a cancellation and would have to bear the costs for rescheduling due to an outbreak among its unvaccinated players. This introduces the possibility of locker rooms to become divided over an issue that offers little room for compromise. (Perhaps this is why, to this point, seemingly few prominent NFL players have trumpeted the merits of vaccination, despite the sway that cultural icons can have in promoting public health.)

In the middle of an ongoing public health crisis, the harmony of a sports team locker room is certainly not high on the list of priorities. But at the same time, the debate that’s raging among NFL players today is one many of us face in our own communities. The use of competitive disadvantage as an incentive to being vaccinated, of course, is not something that applies to most of our workplaces or occupations, certainly not to the same degree as in the NFL. Nor are the financial stakes on the same order, for either employer or employee, at nearly any other corporation in the U.S.

Some players may have been caught off-guard by the NFL’s upping the ante from its previous policies on the eve of training camp. And while vaccination status will not explicitly affect the employment status of any players, practically it will have more of an impact the less secure a player’s spot on the team is, in particular for those who are on the roster bubble. The loss of salary for both teams in the event of a game cancellation also introduces some unfairness: All players lose their pay in the event of a cancellation, even if it was not caused by their team. There can also be infections, and outbreaks, among vaccinated people. The odds of a cancellation due to an outbreak on a team with more than 80% of its players vaccinated (a threshold the league says has been crossed by more than half its teams) are certainly lower, particularly because vaccinated players do not need to quarantine after a high-risk COVID-19 exposure. But the specific bullet point in the memo that states neither team’s players will be paid in the event of a cancellation due to a COVID-19 outbreak does not specify that outbreak must be among unvaccinated players, unlike the other bullet points pertaining to forfeiture and rescheduling costs.

Like most everything the NFL does, principle may play a part, but money is the controlling factor. And as in 2020, the NFL is determined not to let COVID-19 disrupt its season. Regardless, though—and assuming that the NFL met its bargaining obligations with the players union—these new policies represent the most prominent sports league in the U.S. taking steps to compel vaccination.