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The NFL is intent on making life tougher for unvaccinated players

This week’s news is already rubbing unvaxxed players the wrong way, and setting up a blink-and-get-the-shot or dig in ultimatum for holdouts.

Super Bowl LV Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The NFL really wants its players to get a COVID-19 vaccine. After a year of protocols, players missing time and hitting the reserve/COVID-19 list, and either no fans in stadiums or severely deflated numbers, the league wants things to return to normal as much as possible. That’s less out of the goodness of their heart than a desire to make as much money as possible, of course, but the intended end result is the same.

The league probably hoped they could just count on players to go get vaccines themselves, given that they’re widely available, but that process has been slow. In recent weeks, guys like Sam Darnold, Montez Sweat, and Cole Beasley have essentially come out and said they don’t plan to get vaccinated, and just two teams (Saints and Dolphins) have hit 85% player vaccination rate that the NFL has said will be accompanied by relaxed COVID-19 standards over the summer. With training camp and preseason relatively close, the league no longer seems to be content to sit back and wait.

The NFL is not mandating that players get the vaccine, but they and the NFLPA are going to try to make not having the vaccine an annoying proposition, as Tom Pelissero outlined.

It remains somewhat of a marvel that the NFL made it through the entire season last year, but it’s worth remembering how costly that was to them. The salary cap plunged this year after attendance was limited and the NFL lost (by some estimates) a quarter of its revenue through that, cancellations of preseason games and the Pro Bowl, and even though no regular season games were cancelled, some were rescheduled due to mini-outbreaks of COVID-19 among players and staff. The league very obviously does not want a repeat of that, and they’re drawing bright lines between what vaccinated and non-vaccinated players and staff will be able to do during training camp and preseason, something that’s obviously meant to spark higher vaccination rates.

The rationale is easy enough to understand: Several of the vaccines in the market have shown their efficacy in preventing hospitalizations and the spread of the virus, and they’re both freely available and free to the public. Players can and will make their own decisions—as many have reminded me after I poked some fun at Sam Darnold missing time last year due to mono and electing not to get the vaccine this year, it’s their choice—but the NFL has a vested interest in not letting COVID-19 knock stars out for multiple weeks or impact regular season games in any way. They’ll leave the choice but will ensure that the choice has costs, and if that doesn’t sway the vast majority of players, they may make those costs heavier.

The Falcons, for their part, have not said what percentage of players are already vaccinated, with Arthur Smith adding that it is a choice and that the team is comfortable with where they’re at. We’ll likely get further clarity toward training camp when we find out whether the Falcons are subject to the relaxed restrictions when they hit that 85% threshold, but the way they’ve handled it to this point seems like the way to go. We know that shaming is a tactic that only seems to cause people to dig in, not just with COVID-19 vaccines but most anything you want them to do.

The Falcons are another team that’s approached it like that, and Atlanta has gotten a high rate of vaccinations as a result of it. That quarterback Matt Ryan, like Mahomes, was among the first to get his shots was a factor, too, as was Ryan’s willingness to discuss it with his teammates. And new Falcons coach Arthur Smith approached it with the players similar to how Reid did with his—giving them the facts, encouraging them to talk about it with the team’s doctors and trainers, and being sure not to pressure or guilt-trip them.

It remains to be seen how many NFLers will avoid getting the vaccine, but it figures to be at least a small but stubborn slice of the player population. Whether that proves to be a major stumbling block for the league, one that leads to scheduling headaches and multiple players missing time, or a season that closely resembles pre-2020 also remains to be seen. Everyone—even those holdouts, who may yet come around—are hoping for the latter.