Antonio Brown’s audacity taught us something about vaccination cards

Antonio Brown taught us a few things last week.

First, COVID-19 vaccination cards are nowhere near the foolproof passport we've treated them to be.

Second, if someone is determined to refuse a mandate to get a shot, obtaining some slick documentation to evade it isn’t that hard.

Third — and this was the detail that undercut Brown and two other players in the NFL’s investigation — eliminating loose strings in your story goes a long way toward “misrepresenting” your vaccination status. And finally, aside from cases of egregious forgery, the federal government isn’t kicking in doors over individuals attempting to dupe corporations like the NFL.

Add all that up, and it points to this reality: For the most part, vaccination cards are an honor system. And if you’re determined to circumvent it, all it takes is effort and smarts.

Consider what ultimately got Brown and two other players — Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Mike Edwards and free agent wideout John Franklin III — pinched by the the NFL. After several undetected months, it took a soured business relationship with a personal chef and a news report to put three “misrepresented” vaccination cards onto the league’s radar.

I use the word “misrepresented” in quotes because there is an interesting angle to that word, which we'll come back to in a moment. But first, let's look at that Tampa Bay Times report, which despite coming from an extremely reputable longtime beat reporter in Rick Stroud, was summarily dismissed out of hand by Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians. It's the kind of thing that doesn’t happen unless the team has been completely duped by a legitimate-looking document, and its own incomplete (or incompetent) analysis of vaccinations that didn’t take place in the team’s facility.

Clearly, the Buccaneers believed Brown had turned in a legitimate proof of his vaccination. And they might still believe it today, had it not been for the story behind Brown’s vaccination. As they say, the devil is in the details — and the details are what ultimately tripped up this whole charade.

According to Wall Street Journal reporting, Brown, Edwards and Franklin all had cards from the same drive-thru facility 90 minutes away, each with vaccines administered on the same date from the same place. And yet the story was they hadn’t gone to this out-of-the-way destination together, couldn’t describe it and didn’t have logical ties to the area where the cards came from. When it came to the smell test, the story stunk.

So to recap, it took an informant, a news report and then an extremely poor cover story to blow up this whole thing. Without even one of those elements, the league might have never suspended anyone.

Antonio Brown's brazen attempt to circumvent the NFL's proof-of-vaccination mandates taught us something about those mandates. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Antonio Brown's attempt to circumvent the NFL's proof-of-vaccination mandates taught us something about those mandates. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Even then, the NFL still had problems on its hands. There's some distance between not believing a story that sounds fabricated and actually proving that players didn’t get vaccinated. Like every other corporation with a vaccine mandate, there is no database that tracks whether someone who has a vaccine card actually got vaccinated. And even if there was, the NFL can’t access private health records. In effect, people have to simply trust that their employees are providing legitimate documentation.

And the league had a second problem: There isn’t a specific provision in the mini-CBA cooked up between the NFL and players' union that addressed the use of false documentation. The last thing the union wanted was to have players punished for something that is a felony and could invite prosecution outside of the NFL corporate structure.

That’s how we arrived at a three-game suspension for Brown, Edwards and Franklin III for “misrepresenting” their status, rather than a more significant punishment for “faking” or “falsifying” a vaccine card. Calling it the latter is inviting a full-blown catastrophe that could lead to an investigation into the litany of other players with vaccinations that took place outside of team facilities. There’s no telling how many other players have utilized vaccination cards that aren’t legitimate, or how many of them still may be undetectable because their stories are more airtight.

It once again underscores how much of a trust-based system vaccination cards are. If you don’t want to be vaccinated but are required to do it, you can still skirt the system. A simple internet search and some money provide plenty of opportunities to get either fake cards or real cards that have been skimmed off the stockpiles at multiple sites where this massive decentralized system of vaccinations is taking place. Once you have that card, it’s simply a matter of filling it out to look legitimate and knowing the details of the location where you supposedly got your shots. Armed with that (and a little confidence), it’s almost impossible for a corporation to prove you're lying.

The authorities are a different matter. If you try your ruse with someone who has the power to prosecute, that’s a bigger problem. That became apparent when a woman tried to circumvent Hawaii’s safe travel quarantine requirement in late August by giving airport authorities a falsified vaccination card. She was arrested and charged. Or the South Carolina nurse who was indicted by a grand jury this week for mass producing fake vaccine cards. When it comes to pushing the law to make an example of you, these stories stand out. Some football players pulling a fast one on the NFL, not so much.

That doesn’t mean Brown, Edwards and Franklin III will never be held to legal account for what they did. But it seems unlikely, particularly with the NFL and union cutting a deal that takes a wide berth around any language to suggest the trio did something illegal. If anything, that proves the league and union want to continue to take care of vaccination fraud in-house. Because it’s probably better for all of them that it stays that way.

But they’re also now going to have to contend with new information. It took some luck for the NFL to catch this particular ploy, and it’s clear that teams have no idea how legitimate any vaccine card really is. If everything is made to look like every other card, who’s to say if it’s fake or not? Especially if a player has a good, detailed story to share about where and when he got his shots.

At that point, teams just have to take players at their word. And at this point, if the words line up, that’s the only proof the NFL has to rely on.