NFL's Vaccination Problem is Team-Centric

The league has made it clear that any vaccinations issues moving forward will be team problems
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PHILADELPHIA - The NFL is dealing with the sticky wicket of vaccinations right now with the added curveball of having to co-exist with a powerful union that takes its role of fighting for the rights of its members seriously.

In simpler terms, the league can’t simply demand that its players get vaccinated without collectively bargaining for it and many of the young and healthy don't want to get the so-called “Fauci Ouchie.”

“I haven’t been vaccinated yet,” new Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold said recently. “Still gotta think about all those certain things that go into it. Again, it’s everyone’s choice, whether they wanna get vaccinated or not. So, that’s really all I got on it. I don’t wanna go too into detail.”

Darnold took some heat for his comments, but Montez Sweat, the rising 24-year-old star of the Washington Football Team, double-downed with some ineloquent comments.

"I'm not a fan of it," Sweat said. "I probably won't get vaccinated until I get more facts and that stuff. I'm not a fan of it at all. ... I haven't caught COVID yet so I don't see me treating COVID until I actually get COVID."

The dirty little secret here is that Sweat's story is hardly unique among NFL players who often think of themselves as indestructible.

After all, forget about COVID-19, these are young men who engage in a profession of constant car crashes that can cause many physical issues down the road from the more mundane knee and hip replacements to the scariest of cognitive difficulties.

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The fact that those same young men make that cost-benefit analysis on a daily basis and reach the conclusion that the risks are worth it yet many still find it surprising that they don't care all that much about a virus that most would never even know they had save for the millions spent on daily testing is one of life's great mysteries.

No matter, the next stop on the disingenuous train is a short one you’ve all heard. It’s about protecting others.

Now think about the average 24-year-old in your life and the smart money from me is that altruism isn't on the top of their to-do list but let's hold Montez Sweat to a different standard because he’s got money and you know who he is?

Jamie Newman, 23, is a young man who did think of others mainly because COVID-19 hit close to home in his family so instead of transferring to Georgia and becoming a high-profile starting quarterback with one of the SEC’s marquee teams he opted out.

His reward?

Scouts saw a kid with accuracy issues and just one year of starting experience at Wake Forest. No one has a crystal ball but it’s not hard to envision Newman excelling at Georgia and turning into a Day 2 pick with a nice little payday and an opportunity to develop over multiple years had he played in 2020.

Instead, he went undrafted, didn’t even get any money to sign with the Eagles, and will not even make it to training camp, being waived at the end of on-field OTAs in favor of rehabbing veteran Nick Mullens, who was signed Monday to be Philadelphia's QB3.

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In a league where pedigree matters, Newman now has another hurdle making his odds of success in the league even longer moving forward. We won't even get into the price tag for his perceived benevolence or the realization that any social-media support isn't tangible.

The NFL is trying to navigate its tricky path by loosening restrictions for those who have been vaccinated, allowing them to return to some sense of normalcy - in this case, no masks and no daily testing for COVID-19.

Meanwhile, unvaccinated players are still subject to mask restrictions, daily testing, and the threat of being sidelined even if asymptomatic.

Buffalo GM Brandon Beane made his feelings felt on the situation when asked by Steve Tasker last month what he would do if all was equal between a vaccinated and unvaccinated player and a roster spot was on the line.

“I would [cut the unvaccinated player] because it’d be an advantage,” Beane said. “These [socially-distanced] meetings were not as productive as before because you guys saw in the field house, we had three and four meetings going on. And sometimes you’re talking over each other, but it was the only way to pull it off and be socially distanced. It would be an advantage to cut a player and fall under that umbrella.”

The contact-tracing policies remain for unvaccinated players as well plus restrictions on interaction and traveling, or for simply eating in the cafeteria or just waltzing into the weight room.

“Obviously, [the coaches] want everybody to be vaccinated to move more freely around the facility, and with traveling and all that type of stuff but everybody has their own beliefs, and they’re entitled to their own decision," Sweat said.

WFT coach Ron Rivera called it a choice for players because he has to.

"The big thing is we've got to be able to facilitate the opportunity for these guys to understand," Rivera said. "There's a lot of messaging that's out there; they get it off of Twitter and some of it is good, some of it is bad. 

"I'm not sure if these guys watch the news as much as I do and try to gather enough information, but we are really trying to help them because if we can get to that herd immunity, we can really cut it loose and really be able to spend time with each other."

Rivera is also 59 with all the experience that accompanies that and thankfully a cancer survivor. Ask the 24-year-old Rivera who was banging heads as a Chicago Bears linebacker in an era where the game was far more violent than it is today and you would have likely gotten a similar explanation to Sweat offered on this situation.

Education is always better than shame. Door No. 3 of forced conformity is the worst option of all, however.

Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians, also a cancer survivor, boiled it down for the players on the Super Bowl champs.

"If you want to go back to normal, get vaccinated,” the always blunt Arians said.

Bruce Arians made his thoughts about players getting vaccinated bluntly clear

Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians made his thoughts on players getting vaccinated bluntly clear

An imperfect society always results in imperfect solutions and the NFL already has the end-game plotted - the games are going to be played no matter what, just as they were last year without a vaccine.

Roger Goodell confirmed last season that perceived competitive advantages aren't a part of any conversations. Television rights fees are the only goal and if you don't have star players due to vaccination issues that’s too bad.

Don’t have a quarterback, Denver? Try Kendall Hilton.

Have a local government that won’t allow fans? Tough luck. Get used to an antiseptic environment and the visiting team being able to communicate freely.

In 2021 that will mean showing up to play no matter who gets scratched for eschewing a simple vaccination that disingenuous activists from both sides of the ideological fence have hijacked to score political points.

On Monday in Jacksonville, Urban Meyer confirmed that defensive end K'Lavon Chaisson was being held out due to a positive COVID-19 test.

In the spring that's might provoke a yawn or two but on game day this fall, the wrong player testing positive will produce outrage when the show goes on without them.

Don't say you weren't warned.

John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.