The NFL’s first training camps kick off in less than six weeks and COVID-19 remains the ominous cloud that the league can’t escape. The lingering concerns overhead are no longer about understanding the coronavirus or establishing wide-reaching protocols to combat it. Now the persisting agitation surrounds one simple question and the litany of ramifications tied to the answer.
This is what decision-makers in NFL teams want to know. And stepping in line behind them are the league office and the players' union, along with a swath of medical advisers who are almost pleading with players to listen to a unified message. The mantra: Your best protection against COVID comes in the form of a vaccine.
Whether that will motivate players (or apparently some assistant coaches, for that matter) to get the shot is a matter of debate. It's forcing the league and union’s medical officials to attempt to educate and hope that people listen.
“I’ll say what our players say: They’re grown-ass men,” said Thom Mayer, the chief medical director for the NFL Players Association. “You give them the grown-ass facts and they’ll make a grown-ass decision.”
“We’ve encouraged players to get vaccinated from Day 1,” added union executive director DeMaurice Smith. “It’s not really a question of my feelings. It’s a question of making sure the players have access to all the information. Their ability to reach out and call me — I will tell them that immediately after calling me, I send them to Thom Mayer, our medical adviser or one of our other specialists. But we’ve urged players to get the vaccine. We’ve urged them to make sure that they just make a decision that’s informed.”
That’s basically where the league is at now on vaccinations of players. It's offering information and hoping for the best. And it’s coming from all corners. The league has offered medical advisement on the issue. Teams are bringing in specialists to speak to players and staff. The NFLPA is begging players who want the best information on vaccines to pick up the phone and call them. All in an effort to raise vaccination levels that have apparently been going at a slower pace than some in the league expected. How much slower? Nobody is saying exactly, with neither the NFL or the union providing specific data on vaccination levels as the league’s one-month break approaches next week.
In the place of hard numbers, most teams have given vague updates on their outlook. The Green Bay Packers' staff is nearly fully vaccinated, for example — but the players are not. The Chicago Bears are in that same boat. The Detroit Lions’ coaching staff has been fully vaccinated, but declined to give an update on the status of players. The Washington Football team was approaching a 50 percent vaccination rate among players this week. This is a similar story for most teams. They have been left to highlight the progress (which usually involves coaches or staff), but provide vague details on the struggles (which usually involve players).
The San Francisco 49ers, however, did provide a very telling picture of their own COVID vaccination efforts, stating that as of this week, 53 of their 91-man roster is now fully vaccinated and another five players are awaiting their second dose of the vaccine. And the other 33 players? Head coach Kyle Shanahan said the goal is to get another 20 players on board in the next 40 days. That would clear the 85 percent vaccination rate that teams are shooting for in the hopes of relaxing their COVID protocols at the start of training camp.
As it stands, NFL franchise owners have agreed to relax protocols for teams that reach a vaccination standard. The fine details of that commitment and how they will impact training camps are still not in place. And that is a commitment that teams want — at least partially because it can be used as a clear point of motivation for everyone in the franchise.
One NFC head coach was clear on that point, saying, “There hasn’t been a declaration of the difference in camp if you hit a certain threshold. I’d like that to happen.”
That might be a development that would help teams make a definitive push in the next six weeks for their 85 percent vaccination mark, especially when most players have had vaccines available to them for nearly two months and yet many have declined to commit to one. Those remaining holdouts are drawing the most intense efforts of teams. And heading into the league’s break, that is becoming an uphill climb in some franchises.
As one general manager told Yahoo Sports: “I’ve seen where guys are saying [to the media] that they want more information on vaccines — which I think is a fair approach. But in terms of our staff working to inform [players] versus them coming to us for information, we’ve had more players asking questions about [painkiller] Toradol in the last week than we have about vaccines. I think some guys don’t want to be engaged on it, honestly. So we’re working on how to resolve that, how to get them what they need and what to do if we can’t reach that 85 percent. That’s going to be a project for some of us right up to [training] camp.”
Asked if that was frustrating, the GM replied, “Very. But that’s life in the last year.”
Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians appeared to echo a similar sentiment Thursday, when noted that the team is engaged in its own vaccine drive for players and their family.
“There’s going to be a long line over there right now,” Arians told reporters. “We were pretty short up until now. Hopefully we have a pretty good line.”
Arians said he told players, “If you want to go back to normal, get vaccinated,” but apparently stopped short of bringing in a specialist to speak to the team, as Washington had coach Ron Rivera did this week.
“I’m the specialist,” Arians said.
Of course, this is all shaping up predictably considering the functionality of the league. Front offices and coaching staffs want their teams to run at the fullest possible capacity for work and development. And they see the clearest path to that being a vaccine line that promises to mitigate not only infection rates but also the lingering toll the virus can take on a player’s health inside of a season.
Conversely, players often take a conservative measurement when it comes to their health and whether teams always have their best interests. And the COVID vaccines are likely to provoke even more thought and wariness, due to the emergency use authorization that allowed them to bypass the FDA's typical long-winded study and approval process.
This is how you get players like Washington defensive end Montez Sweat and Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold telling reporters they are wary of the vaccine and may ultimately choose to completely forgo it.
“I’m not a fan of it,” Sweat said this week. “I probably won’t get vaccinated until I get more facts and that stuff. I’m not a fan of it at all. … I haven’t caught COVID yet so I don’t see me treating COVID until I actually get COVID.”
Darnold couched his intentions more, but also said he wasn’t committed to getting vaccinated.
“I still gotta think about all those certain things that go into it,” he said. “Again, it’s everyone’s choice whether they want to get vaccinated or not. So, that’s really all I got on it. I don’t want to go too into detail.”
Whether Darnold, Sweat or a large swath of other holdouts get the information they’re looking for between now and the start of training camp remains to be seen. But it’s clear the league, union and individual franchises will continue to push ahead with their efforts.
As the union’s top doctor put it, each trying to get grown-ass men to make grown-ass decisions, all in hopes of putting COVID-19 as far into the rear-view mirror as possible.
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