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NFL’s new memo indicates COVID-19 outbreaks may cause forfeits, loss of game checks in 2021

The NFL is getting tired of waiting for the entire league to get their vaccines and is making it clear.

New York Jets v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The NFL went through a weird, limited year in 2020, one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic roiling the world and leading to lockdowns, restrictions and other cautionary measures designed to prevent more widespread infection than the world already had on its hands. That season saw the league suffer significant revenue loss, juggle games after outbreaks and generally upend a lot of things that had been standard on the NFL calendar for a long time.

The league is just as keen as the rest of us to put COVID-19 in the rearview mirror, in other words, but the realization that we’re a long way away from getting there has had plenty of time to sink in. With the season looming and the league still far away from getting every player fully vaccinated, not to mention an uptick in cases fueled by the very infectious Delta variant of the virus, the NFL has a simple message for teams: Get everyone vaccinated or it’s your ass when you have an outbreak.

Pelissero’s report and the memo he shares make it clear the league is only going to do so much juggling of the calendar if there are outbreaks this year, with no plan to add a 19th week if COVID outbreaks really get rolling. That means if a team suffers an outbreak and it jeopardizes a game, they’ll forfeit, get a loss, potentially both teams will lose their game checks and the team in question might suffer additional penalties from the commissioner. If you’re an unvaccinated player who sparks an outbreak on your team this year, you are likely in a lot of trouble, and the pressure to not be that guy is clearly something the league is hoping will spur holdouts to go get jabbed.

As I wrote back in June, the league clearly hoped they could count on players to just go get vaccinated on their own, but they had contingencies ready to roll in case that didn’t happen. The league is not requiring the vaccine, but in June they announced that unvaccinated players would face more stringent restrictions during training camp. That may have accelerated the vaccination rate a bit in the league, but it wasn’t enough for the NFL to consider foregoing much more drastic penalties during the season.

In the memo, Roger Goodell indicates that 78% of NFL players are at least partially vaccinated and nearly half the league’s teams are at over a 85% vaccination rate, which represents significant progress from where we were a month ago. The league is obviously not satisfied with those numbers—and if they want to prevent outbreaks to the best of their ability, they can’t be—as today’s memos and the comments of the league’s chief medical officer indicate. The 85% threshold comes with relaxed testing and distancing standards that teams will undoubtedly be glad to have.

“We’re pleased with those numbers, but we’re not satisfied. We want to see them continue to go up,” NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills told Battista on Thursday’s NFL NOW. “Certainly those rates are well above what we’re seeing in the rest of society and certainly above the same age group as most of our players are. So a great head-start, more work to be done.”

The COVID-19 virus and its variants have led to more than 4 million deaths worldwide, with nearly 192 million confirmed cases. In the United States, over 34 million cases have been reported along with over 609,000 deaths, and the rise of a more infectious variant known as Delta, cases are back on the rise after vaccines and the changing summer weather sent cases plummeting in the U.S. Vaccines have been available for free throughout the year, albeit less accessible for those without transportation or in very rural areas, so at this point it would be hard for any player to claim they’re not aware of both the scope of the problem and the solution available to them. Vaccinated people can get COVID in rare cases—and it appears to be slightly less rare with Delta—but those cases are by rule milder and seemingly less likely to spread. The more vaccinated people out there, the less opportunity the virus has to run amok and mutate in ways that are beneficial to the virus and less beneficial to the humans they’re infecting, and near universal vaccination has been used to virtually shut down some diseases and eradicate others in the United States over the past 50-plus years. The NFL and NFLPA’s patience, given that they’ve had experts talk to teams about all of this and more, is obviously growing thin.

I doubt you could find a coach, player, or team staffer who wants there to be any disruption to the NFL calendar this year, to say nothing of a player getting ill to the extent that players like Von Miller did in 2020. The NFL is making it clear that they can get a vaccine to prevent exactly that kind of disruption or plan on suffering the very real consequences of saying no, and it’ll be interesting to see if this is enough to make players who are refusing to go get theirs blink. If it isn’t, the very real possibility of sick players and cancelled games is already looming over the season ahead.