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Tara Sullivan

With its new rules, the NFL is making things harder on unvaccinated players — and that’s a good thing

Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins all but threatened retirement over vaccination in a tweet he later deleted, and he isn't the only NFL player taking issue with the league's announcement that players will be financially penalized if a game is forfeited due to COVID-19.Christian Petersen/Getty

The NFL didn’t use the word “mandate”. But it did use the word “forfeit”. And in using the latter, it’s quite clear the league’s intent was the former.

The league wants and expects players to get vaccinated against COVID-19, for the good of their health, for the good of their teammates’ health, for the good of public health, and yes, for the good of their business product.

To which I say: Good for the NFL.

Amid a pandemic with a virus constantly proving its ability to morph and spread, the vaccine remains the best way out of this nightmare. Its effect at mitigating not only transmission but severity for those unfortunate to contract it is inarguable. And as major sports leagues exist by having their employees available to play and their games ready to go on, enforcing policies that make that most likely should not be nearly as controversial as they are.

By putting in writing what should be so patently obvious, the NFL is stepping into a complicated breach, wherein getting a potentially pandemic-ending vaccine has turned into a political football. But if a league so notoriously and consistently behind the eight-ball can take the lead, if a commissioner who has made a living out of reacting rather than leading can be this proactive, it deserves a moment of recognition and thanks.


Of course there will be blowback. That started immediately, when high-profile wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins all but threatened retirement over vaccination in a tweet he later deleted. And that’s his right, just as it remains his right to choose not to get vaccinated. But what the NFL also made clear with Thursday’s widely circulated memo to all 32 teams is that you cannot choose to be free from the consequences of that choice.

And the consequences for COVID outbreaks among unvaccinated players are huge. There will be no extra accommodation for rescheduling games outside of the 17-game, 18-week current slate. There will be no Week 19. Any team with an outbreak could be forced to forfeit its game, with the loss counting against playoff seeding. The team responsible for the canceled game will be responsible for financial losses and face potential additional discipline from the commissioner.


While vaccinated individuals who test positive, the so-called breakthrough cases, can return after two negative tests 24 hours apart (with the league also promising to “minimize the competitive and economic burden on both participating teams” in that case), unvaccinated individuals are subject to a mandatory 10-day quarantine.

And then, the kicker:

“If a game is canceled and cannot be rescheduled within the current 18-week schedule due to a COVID outbreak, neither team’s players will receive their weekly paragraph 5 salary.”

The Draconian salary threat appears to be the reason newly signed Patriots defensive end Matt Judon tweeted, “The NFLPA [expletive] sucks,” but there are others who just don’t want to get the vaccine. There’s little chance Buffalo’s Cole Beasley, who has been very vocal about his vaccine objections, stands alone. Beasley concluded a Twitter rant last month by saying he no longer wanted to be a distraction to his team, but among his tweets Friday was this gem: “Nothing has changed. I’m still livin freely. Goodnight.”

Could a different tweet from his Bills teammate Stefon Diggs portend locker room discord?


“Accountability . . . availability,” Diggs wrote.

In other words, be accountable to your teammates by being available to play. Which makes it clear: If it turns out you’re not available because you chose not to be vaccinated, teammates might blame you. Or worse: Coaches might get rid of you.

Think about it: When it comes down to cut day, what’s to stop a coach from taking vaccination status into account? And who’s to say they’d be wrong for doing so? If all other factors are equal, wouldn’t a coach want a player less likely to spread the virus than one more likely to cause an outbreak and thus trigger penalties? And even if that were something to which the NFLPA would object, how would the union prove the intent?

The NFL already has many rules on player safety, from the helmets atop their heads to a rulebook replete with lessons on how they can most safely tackle each other. And participation in sports has long since included vaccine requirements, all the way back to school days that required MMR, DPT, and smallpox inoculations. The research and development that got us to a vaccine so quickly is a tribute to modern medicine, but somehow it turned into a political referendum instead, another crevice in what feels like an ever-deepening societal rift.

As Michael Irvin put it, this shouldn’t be about left wing or right wing. For players, this should be about winning a ring, a possibility that the NFL is making clear is much easier by getting vaccinated.


In a conference call Friday, Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, reported progress on teams’ vaccination rates, saying 80 percent of players have had at least one shot, that nine teams have 90 percent of players vaccinated, and that only five teams remain under the 70 percent threshold. Earlier NFL Network reporting confirmed all 32 teams have reached at least 50 percent.

As Sills said Thursday on NFL NOW, “We’re pleased with those numbers, but we’re not satisfied. We want to see them continue to go up. 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 headstart, more work to be done.”

The NFL made it through last year’s strange, COVID season without actually canceling any games, a feat that hindsight reminds us was not easy. There were multiple postponements, lots of confusion, high-profile player absences, and one game in which a team didn’t have a healthy starting quarterback. There was a lot of hope, plenty of fingers crossed, and no doubt a little bit of luck.

Now, there is a vaccine. Good on the NFL for wanting to use it.

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.