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NFL’s COVID protocols pit vaccinated players against unvaccinated ones

Bills receiver Cole Beasley (left, with coach Sean McDermott) is one player who has been adamant about not getting the vaccine.
Bills receiver Cole Beasley (left, with coach Sean McDermott) is one player who has been adamant about not getting the vaccine.Joshua Bessex/Associated Press

The NFL is hoping to get back to normal as much as possible this fall. The mask mandates have been lifted for vaccinated personnel, full stadiums are expected, and the league’s vaccination rates are far surpassing societal trends. As of Tuesday morning, 100 percent of NFL coaches were vaccinated, and 85 percent of the players had received at least one shot.

But the pandemic isn’t over in the NFL. As training camps open this week, we are seeing how COVID-19 is still the league’s most potent enemy, with the potential to rip teams apart.

Players and coaches are still getting pulled from the lineup at a moment’s notice, and the vaccination debate is pitting players against each other, with the potential to bitterly divide a locker room.

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Already that division is playing out in Buffalo, where receiver Cole Beasley, one of the most vocal anti-vaccine players in the NFL, got into a Twitter spat with teammate Jerry Hughes.

“I understand freedom of choice,” Hughes tweeted to Beasley. “But our job has put rules in place. Rules are rules.”

Those rules, agreed to by the NFL and the Players Association, are designed to shame players who won’t get the vaccine.

In the 2021 season, unvaccinated players have to miss significant time if they contract COVID or even if they are a close contact. Ravens running back Gus Edwards tested positive Tuesday and has to sit out at least 10 days. Vaccinated players who get COVID, such as Patriots tight end Devin Asiasi, can come back in as few as two days.

The subtext of the NFL’s rules: Vaccinated players are putting the team first, and unvaccinated players aren’t.

“I got the vaccine just because I wanted to put myself in the best situation to be out there for my team, week in and week out,” Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott said recently.

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Cardinals star receiver DeAndre Hopkins complained about this in a since-deleted tweet.

“Never thought I would say this, But being in a position to hurt my team because I don’t want to partake in the vaccine is making me question my future in the @nfl,” Hopkins wrote.

DeAndre Hopkins made it clear where he stood when it came to getting the vaccine.
DeAndre Hopkins made it clear where he stood when it came to getting the vaccine.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

The patience of vaccinated players will really get tested if a COVID breakout causes a game to get postponed or canceled. In a memo to all 32 teams last week, the NFL highlighted the fact that if a game has to be canceled because of a COVID outbreak, players on both teams won’t receive their weekly paychecks.

The fewer players that are vaccinated, the higher the chance a team has of incurring an outbreak. And no one wants to miss a paycheck.

Unvaccinated players also have to wear a scarlet letter inside their practice facilities.

In a memo on July 8, the NFL informed teams that they are required to “visually identify” those who are vaccinated and those who aren’t. Most teams are having vaccinated players wear one color wristband, and unvaccinated players wear another. Lanyards or other methods also can be used.

Such markers only have to be worn indoors, so players don’t have to wear them on the practice field in front of fans and reporters. But everyone inside the facility will know which side a person is on: Team Vaccine or Team Anti-Vaccine.

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Locally, the Patriots are preaching unity and understanding. Team leaders Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, and David Andrews spoke to the media Tuesday in advance of Wednesday’s opening practice, and said no one was pressuring the unvaccinated players into getting shots. Coach Bill Belichick declined to reveal the percentage of Patriots players that are vaccinated, saying only, “Quite a few of them. Most of them, probably.”

“I don’t worry about any issue coming in between the team or making things tough for us to operate,” McCourty said. “I think last year really showed us — coaches, players, staff — everybody was in this together.”

But we’ll see if McCourty, who has contributed to PSAs urging vaccination, and his teammates are so understanding if an unvaccinated player has to sit out a key game or costs everyone a game check.

Devin McCourty was preaching unity on Tuesday.
Devin McCourty was preaching unity on Tuesday.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

In a strange way, COVID may be more impactful in 2021 than it was in 2020. Last year, everyone was masked up, socially distancing, and taking every precaution. This year, with most players vaccinated, the rules have been relaxed. Masks are no longer required for vaccinated individuals, and people are going out in public again.

Sure enough, 14 players between Thursday and Monday were placed on the COVID-IR list, 15 more players went on the list Tuesday, and Colts coach Frank Reich, who is fully vaccinated, tested positive and is likely to miss his team’s first four practices. If this were a game week, his status would be in doubt, even though he is asymptomatic.

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As we saw last year with the Browns’ Kevin Stefanski, the NFL isn’t going to postpone a game to wait for a coach to get healthy. And as we saw with the Broncos, the NFL isn’t going to cancel a game if a team’s quarterback depth chart (or any position) gets decimated.

The NFL was adamant in its memo last week that there is enough roster flexibility this year for games to be played, barring a significant health crisis.

The Patriots also lost one of their offensive line coaches, Cole Popovich, who opted against the vaccine and won’t be with the team this year.

Belichick is used to rallying his players around a common enemy — usually an opponent or member of the media who says something disrespectful about the Patriots.

But he and all the other NFL coaches have a unique challenge in 2021: Make sure the vaccine debate doesn’t rip the locker room apart.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.