COVID-19 Still Poses Threat for NFL, Players in 2021 Season

The NFL desperately wants to have the 2021 season unimpacted by COVID-19, but they are showing concern over vaccination rates and positive tests could have impact on players' money.
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The NFL is in a race against time, still dealing with COVID-19 issues while simultaneously telling the world that they are full steam ahead to let fans fill their stadiums for the 2021 season. Understandably, the league wants to maximize their revenue as much as possible after suffering a massive drop in 2020 with fans extremely limited in their ability attend games, so they are doing everything they can to ensure that happens while quietly having vaccination levels within teams far below where they were hoping.

Not only do teams want to make money, but they also want to make sure they can expand the salary cap to the full $208.2 million ceiling that has been announced for 2022, so they can ensure they can keep the players they want and sign new ones. If they fall short, the cap won't be as high, which put the squeeze on a number of teams after the 2020 season and would continue to be a problem in 2021.

As reported by Tom Pelissero of NFL Network, the league has notified a number of assistant coaches that if they were not fully vaccinated (2 weeks from their final injection), they would lose their tier 1 access, limiting their ability to work with players. Without tier 1 access, coaches cannot be on the field, meeting rooms or have direct access to players. Basically, they'd be coaching from home. Teams are allowed to bypass that requirement for a legitimate religious or medical reason, enabling them to retain tier 1 access.

Meanwhile, players are part of a union and the players union would have to approve a COVID-19 requirement as a unified front in a negotiation with the league. That has yet to happen assuming it would happen at all, so unvaccinated players can work directly with coaches, but unvaccinated coaches cannot work directly with players, at least for the time being.

The league has attempted to incentivize players by easing rules on those that have been vaccinated including reducing the amount of testing they have to do and allowing them to go without masks in the facility. Unvaccinated players still have to test on an almost daily basis and wear masks throughout the facility.

Despite the fact the league does not have an agreement with players in regards to vaccination requirements, teams absolutely have the leverage to punish players that haven't been vaccinated and there is real money on the line with these decisions.

A player will get their full salary and bonuses they are due, but they might not be able to reach incentives or escalators by missing a game or two due to a positive test, which is money they won't receive. 

The team also doesn't have to have a reason to cut a player and they can use missing games due to a positive test as a reason to undercut a player in salary negotiations. They don't even have to test positive, but simply be exposed to someone who has to possibly miss a game.

If a player were to experience complications due to what is still a serious virus, teams can also be legitimately concerned about long term effects and use that as a means to try to negotiate a player down in terms of contract demands or move them as a result.

It sounds somewhat cold, but it's also human nature. If a player simply didn't get vaccinated because they believe in bad information or simply didn't feel like bothering, it wouldn't reflect well on them as far as their reliability as a player. Depending on the player, that could have a major impact on a team's season. As always, the better the player, the longer leash they will likely receive from teams.

If two players are even in a team's evaluation, but one is vaccinated and the other isn't, it would not be remotely surprising if the team opted for the one that is vaccinated as it does offer a competitive advantage in the current climate.

The bottom line is a decision not to vaccinate, regardless of the legitimacy to the reason behind it, has the potential to cost players real money.

This just played out on the PGA Tour. Despite leading after three rounds at The Memorial, a tournament held in Columbus, Ohio, Spanish golfer Jon Rahm tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced to withdraw from the event, which not only cost him a chance to win the tournament, but it also cost him as much as $1.7 million in earnings.

The PGA Tour has stricter rules for players who are unvaccinated in terms of testing and the need to isolate. Had Rahm been vaccinated, he would not have been tested in the first place or been isolated, allowing him to continue playing and potentially win the tournament.

There's no way to know how the Cleveland Browns will handle a situation when it comes vaccination, but it's at least worth noting head coach Kevin Stefanski is in a televised public service announcement from the state of Ohio encouraging people to get vaccinated that is run pretty consistently.

What is clear is there will also be backlash from both fans and media if a key player missed games due to testing positive when vaccines are freely available. Some of that may be due to a belief that the practice of holding them out is unfair at this point, but there will be real vitriol at the player for not being vaccinated if it hurts their team.

Teammates will also naturally have feelings if a player were to miss games due to testing positive. The Cleveland Browns were put in the worst case scenario last season, having to play a playoff game without numerous players as well as the head coach due to positive COVID-19 tests.

So to be able to avoid that same situation again and choose not to will be more difficult to accept. Being able to overcome what seemed an impossible situation and defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road in a playoff game was an enormous lift during the pandemic for both the team and its fans. It was virtually unavoidable last season and just really terrible luck. Now, it would be willful.

When the Browns opened up OTA's in preparation for the 2021 season, a player immediately tested positive for COVID-19 on May 25th, which forced them to send players home from the facility. That was the exact same day the NFL announced teams could have fans at training camps, which set to open at the end of July. The Browns are scheduled to start their training camp on July 27th.

Not exactly an ideal look for the league or the team in the moment, even if it was a relative blip overall.

Teams are not going to release numbers on the percentage of players that have been vaccinated and likely will not confirm even having conversations about the subject, but the PSAs continue to play with Stefanski heartily endorsing the move. Whether that is internalized as pressure to the locker room is unclear.

Furthering the mixed messages going on with teams is the fact that the league is still operating as if it's in a pandemic in terms of media access. A limited amount of media is allowed to watch practice and everything is still being done virtually through Zoom in terms of access to players and coaches. While that is a responsible move in maximizing player safety, it also provides an element of control that coaches and the front office are happy to take advantage of for the time being.

If they open up training camp for fans, they will also be opening up their access to the media. That's a pretty dramatic change in the course of about seven weeks.

In theory, fans are never going to be close enough to players in practice, so it's safe for the players. However, part of the charm of training camp is access to the players, especially in Berea where the Browns practice fields are tucked into a neighborhood, giving it a low key environment feel where fans are often separated from players by nothing more than a line of cordage. 

Are teams planning to eliminate those potential interactions or do they intend to let players decide? 

It can be an incredibly tough spot for a player to wave off children or pretend they don't hear them desperately trying to get them to come over and sign an autograph or give them a high-five. In a very real way, it might be the only opportunity for a kid like that to meet someone they look up to so much. If the players were to go over and are not vaccinated, they now put themselves at some level of risk.

There's no easy answer.

Unless there is a breakthrough of some kind, either due to the example of Rahm at the Memorial or teams facilitating vaccinations that players embrace, the league is basically hoping that the pandemic will effectively end in a little over a month. To be fair to the NFL, the trends nationally in terms of infection rates would suggest they could be right as the number of cases has dropped precipitously as vaccinations have increased.

In that sense, even if the vaccination rate of players and coaches never reaches what owners would hope, they could be fortunate enough to thread the needle and avoid the pandemic for the 2021 season. Unfortunately, the margins are slim and it doesn't take much for the virus to have a major impact, even if it's simply continued reason for teams as well as fans have continued reason to worry about a positive test.

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