Column: As training camps open, NFL doubles down on vaccines
Two things are increasingly evident as NFL training camps open for a season that league officials are determined to play — and finish — on time.
The first is that COVID-19 vaccines, while highly effective, are not foolproof. That was clear Monday when Indianapolis announced that coach Frank Reich tested positive for the virus even though he was fully vaccinated.
The second is that players who refuse to be vaccinated have little, if any, chance of playing a full season of football this fall.
The NFL is taking a hard line on vaccinations, much to the dismay of a handful of players who can’t seem to understand that vaccines are overwhelmingly a good thing. Players who show up in camp without their shots can expect lots of testing, possible fines and much more if they end up with COVID-19 cases that disrupt the season.
They also risk becoming pariahs to their teammates, who by getting their shots displayed a better understanding of how vaccines and big business work.
Whether that’s enough to make all players come to their senses is questionable. Some have raised protests online, most notably Buffalo receiver Cole Beasley, who suggested last month he would retire rather than get the vaccine.
There are also two assistant coaches who reportedly are out of work because they refuse to get vaccinated.
But as of the end of last week, four out of every five NFL players reported receiving at least one dose of the vaccine. That figure should pick up — and pick up quickly — as camps open and players begin to realize that the vaccine is not their enemy.
And, really, what is there to fear? Tens of millions of people have been vaccinated with few, if any, side effects, and the vaccines are widely hailed as both safe and effective.
Not to mention, these are athletes who risk long-term health damage every time they step on the field. If they can risk having their brains scrambled and getting CTE from playing football, they have little to fear from a mild side effect or two from a shot.
Don’t want to get a vaccine to play? How about just playing without a helmet instead?
To be clear, the NFL isn’t requiring players to get vaccinated. They can get their shots or not, as long as they’re willing to live with the consequences.
But the league is making it so difficult to play the upcoming season unvaccinated that the list of conditions and penalties for the unvaccinated makes getting the shots a de facto mandate.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. While the majority of Americans are getting vaccinated, the minority that won’t is driving up infection and hospitalization rates and helping prolong a pandemic that has already gone on way too long.
And the bottom line is the NFL is a $16 billion a year business. With certain exceptions spelled out in the contract with its players union it can take measures it deems necessary to protect that cash flow.
The league isn’t alone. On Monday, both California and New York City announced plans to require employees to be vaccinated or get tested weekly. Businesses around the country are doing the same.
Yes, anti-vaxxers are both angry and loud. It’s tough to ignore them, even if their messages are often contradictory and make little sense.
But they have no right to threaten the health — and livelihood — of those who pay attention to the science and do the right thing. That’s particularly true in the NFL, where players and coaches share locker rooms, and close contact on the field is not only permitted but encouraged.
Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, noted last week that the number of NFL players who have received at least one shot is much higher than the general population at large. He predicted that as camps begin, vaccinations will increase.
“There has been a lot of movement in that area,” Sills said. “As you see players coming to training camp, you will see more players beginning that process.”
Players have been officially warned. The penalties for disrupting the season have been laid out.
And, by now, the unvaccinated should understand just how serious the league is about vaccines.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg