I’ll never forget being in the Superdome on September 25, 2006. About 13 months after Hurricane Katrina, never was I so happy to see a Saints game with my dad.
We sat together on the 50-yard line on the visitor’s side as the Saints dominated Atlanta 23-3, in awe of the power of sports to unite us. Not just the people in our row, or the 70,000 people in the Superdome that day, but everyone in New Orleans recovering from Katrina.
But what about now? More than a year after COVID-19 upended the world as we know it, the NFL is trying to divide locker rooms rather than unite. In the league’s latest effort to force players and personnel with even a slight question about the COVID-19 vaccines, the NFL is using every tool in its toolbox to blackmail them with lost wages and potential game forfeitures this season.
The NFL recently released a memo stating if any game has to be canceled “due to an outbreak of unvaccinated players,” that club will forfeit the game. Then on top of that, players on BOTH TEAMS will lose their weekly salary. So tell me, Roger, how exactly is that fair to those that choose to get vaccinated?
This terrifies me because the NFL is essentially creating fear and division in the locker room when it should be trying to unite in 2021 after the year Americans have had. We’re seeing the unvaccinated as “second-class citizens” plot line play out already on cruise ships – I saw this Bloomberg story a few weeks ago.
Hopefully we won’t see any COVID-19 outbreaks like the Ravens or Titans had in 2020 as teams report to training camp. But remember, even with all the postponements and games played on every day of the week last season, no games were ultimately canceled in the heart of the pandemic. Most importantly, all the players emerged healthy.
Now with three safe and effective vaccines widely available, NFL Network numbers report 14 teams have 85% of players vaccinated, and it’s likely that figure will grow. So maybe this nightmarish policy won’t even be a factor. Not only do I wish that for the teams, but also because press conferences shouldn’t be dominated by questions about COVID cases or vaccination rates.
However, I’m glad some players are speaking out about it, like Deandre Hopkins, who posted this on Twitter, before deleting it:
Then he followed it up with these two, including a quote tweet of Gary Sheffield, Jr.:
I’m not here to argue about being pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination. This is America after all, so everyone is free to state their opinions loud and clear and exercise their medical freedom. It’s about the NFL’s refusal to follow the science and care for the people it serves. Instead they make a blanket statement in July that they’re unwilling to add an extra week to the season, so cancellations = forfeits. That’s not just draconian, it’s unnecessary.
Look what everyone in America and the world has endured since March 2020 when the pandemic began, especially front-line healthcare workers. Flexibility has been the name of the game for the past 17 months, adjusting to masking, social distancing, business restrictions, you name it. I’ve tried to see sports as an escape from the grind of working and studying from home, and it’s disappointing how the NFL thinks it’s so high and mighty that it can’t give its players freedom to choose whether an experimental vaccine is best for them or not. After all, these are among the healthiest people in the country, and the vaccines aren’t fully FDA-approved yet. Players like Jalen Ramsey aren’t fans of the coercion:
What about players and staff who may have recovered from COVID-19? Is the NFL considering natural immunity or conducting COVID-19 antibody tests? A Cleveland Clinic study published in June revealed that vaccines do not provide additional protection to those who have already been infected – “the strongest argument for restricting vaccine administration to those who have not had the infection.”
Say, God forbid, a team has an outbreak this season. How will the league determine if it originated from an unvaccinated or a vaccinated player if cases involve both unvaccinated and vaccinated people? Will the NFL just pick a narrative? (Saints fans, cue the conspiracies now…) Breakthrough infections can, and do happen. And you want to talk about unfairness and resentment? Making the team that didn’t even cause an outbreak lose its game check – where’s the logic there? I’m sorry, but that’s pure fear-mongering, and players like Seattle’s DJ Reed are succumbing to the NFL’s pressure despite being wary of “long-term effects.”
We also just saw Minnesota Vikings assistant coach Rick Dennison almost lose his job, reportedly after refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. New Orleans Saints fans can rest assured that shouldn’t be a threat to the Saints in 2021 – back in June Sean Payton said 100% of Tier 1 and Tier 2 staff were vaccinated.
Nonetheless, the NFL is wading into extremely dangerous waters here. This issue could divide locker rooms and lead to competitive disadvantages for athletes who simply choose to exercise their rights in a different way. If a roster battle comes down to two equally talented players, but one is vaccinated and one isn’t? I can see the media drooling….
The NFL has some of the toughest athletes you’ll ever find on the planet. They fight tooth and nail, now for 17 games a season, all for a shot at the Lombardi Trophy. Some sadly suffer injuries that carry life-altering consequences – just ask Alex Smith, Ryan Shazier, or even Drew Brees, who reportedly played his final season with broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a torn rotator cuff and a torn fascia in his foot, his wife Brittany emotionally revealed on Instagram in January.
So what is the league trying to achieve here?
Legendary NFL QB Joe Theismann, who suffered a pretty gruesome leg injury in his day, just talked to Brian Kilmeade about all this (scroll down to the full interview and swipe to the 3:00 mark). When you start talking about forfeiting games and salaries, the penalty is no longer limited to just unvaccinated players. These players put themselves in real danger on the field week every week, and it’s time for the NFL to respect their freedoms once and for all – seeking unity over division.
I hope that happens, and I’ll be back in the Caesars Superdome supporting my Saints regardless. But I’m not holding my breath.