The NFL warned clubs and players on Thursday that Covid-19 outbreaks among unvaccinated players in 2021 could cause forfeits without pay to either club and teams liable for financial losses.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell informed teams of the policy for the upcoming season in a memo, which encourages players to get vaccinated but falls short of a mandate under terms of its deal with the players union.
NFL teams began pre-season training camps this week with the 2021 campaign set to start in September.
Under terms established in the memo, if a team has a Covid-19 outbreak and a game cannot be played or rescheduled during the 18-week season, the team with the outbreak will forfeit the contest.
The team responsible for an unplayed game due to unvaccinated players or staff will be responsible for covering financial losses for the canceled game and possible discipline for the commisioner.
That move essentially pressures teams to get their personnel vaccinated as the potential expenses for an unplayed game, from ticket refunds to lost league telecast revenue, could be steep.
There will also be peer pressure from teammates as well as players on other teams, who risk losing their paychecks from a game because a rival club has an outbreak and forfeits.
The memo states the NFL plans to play its entire 272 games, 17 contests per club, over 18 weeks, with no extra week to allow for rescheduling.
"We do not anticipate adding a '19th week' to accommodate games that cannot be rescheduled within the current 18 weeks of the regular season," the memo said.
The moves should avoid the major rescheduling issues Covid-19 produced last season, games being played on every day of the week and teams juggling plans to complete the season.
Vaccinated individuals who test positive but are asymptomatic can return to activities after two negative tests 24 hours apart while unvaccinated people will have a mandatory 10-day isolation.
"If a game is cancelled/postponed because a club cannot play due to a Covid spike among or resulting from its non-vaccinated players/staff, then the burden of the cancellation or delay will fall on the club experiencing the Covid infection," the memo said.
"We will seek to minimize the burden on the opposing club or clubs. If a club cannot play due to a Covid spike in vaccinated individuals, we will attempt to minimize the competitive and economic burden on both participating teams."
The NFL cites the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in creating the new regulations for the upcoming season.
According to the NFL Network, more than 78% of NFL players have had at least one shot of a vaccine and 14 teams have at least 85% of players vaccinated.
"We can play a full season if we maintain a firm commitment to adhering to our health and safety protocols and to making needed adjustments in response to changing conditions," the memo said.
"These operating principles are designed to allow us to play a full season in a safe and responsible way and address possible competitive or financial issues fairly."