The NFL’s COVID reality: Unvaccinated players are a liability

·NFL columnist
·6-min read

For months, the NFL’s vaccine stragglers have clung to the nebulous need for more. More data, more research, more approval. 

Now they’ll need more excuses.

That’s what Monday’s biotech news brought, by way of the FDA’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine. It’s a development that is sure to be followed in the coming months by other approvals in the space, just as it’s sure to be blown off by some NFL players who refuse to get vaccinated. But this time around, players won’t be able to lean on the lack of an FDA approval, leaving some to continue grasping at their own nebulous concoction for why they refuse an added layer of protection from COVID-19.

The overwhelming amount of favorable science and billions of worldwide vaccinations haven’t been enough, so it’s likely the FDA’s approval won’t make a difference either. They’ll continue to want to do their own research, as if they’re spending time between practices in lab coats and hovering over electron microscopes. Unlike the game where they make their living, the goalposts for their reasoning will move to whatever destination takes them furthest from a vaccination needle.

And come next month, when rosters are reduced to 53 players, some will surely be cut for it, largely because the liability of being a COVID risk outweighs on-field productivity. Now that FDA approval is in hand, that’s how teams should treat it. If navigating COVID is part of a franchise’s operational manual, it should be considered part of the playbook, too.

Run, block, tackle, throw, vaccinate.

New England Patriots' Cam Newton (1) in action during a pre-season NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
Cam Newton will be forced to be away from Patriot team activities for five days because he and New England failed to follow proper COVID protocols. (AP)

Cam Newton's sketchy COVID protocol situation 

If a player's performance in one of the required areas is poor — or completely nonexistent — then he is a liability who can open a competitive advantage for another team. And unless a player has a valid reason for failing in one of those areas (or some ability that overrides that failure) he is subject to being cut — just like so many other NFL evaluations that place an emphasis on not becoming a weak link.

Don’t think the risk isn’t real, either. The New England Patriots and Cam Newton showcased that on Monday, when a sketchy scenario unfolded that violated NFL-NFLPA testing protocols, sidelining Newton for three valuable practices that will now slide the first-team offense over to rookie Mac Jones. The word "sketchy" applies in this scenario because the Patriots and Newton both violated a COVID-testing protocol that has been hammered into every team’s head when it comes to unvaccinated players. That protocol is simple and well known throughout the league: Unvaccinated players can’t leave town and effectively conduct their own independent COVID tests while they are away.

According to the standards that the league and players union agreed upon, private testing equates to missed tests and it forces an unvaccinated player to go through a five-day on-boarding process when they return. It's a process that takes them out of the facility and away from practices. 

For their part, the Patriots appear to be taking part of the rap for this failure, stating that Newton traveled to a team-approved appointment. That's remarkable because it suggests that New England didn’t know one of the loudest and most basic rules of unvaccinated players — that they can’t leave town and do their own independent tests.

Never mind that this seems unbelievable for any NFL franchise, let alone the Patriots. Even Newton should have known it because unvaccinated players have been given flashing red guardrails when it comes to testing and travel. Both of those realities and who is at fault are just a side dish to what all of this really spells out — that Newton not being vaccinated created the entire scenario for this to happen in the first place. Just as every other unvaccinated player creates this possibility.

Availability is paramount for NFL players 

Keep this in mind: If this were the regular season and Newton had done this on the typical off day for players — which is Tuesday — it means that his five-day on-boarding process would have lasted through Sunday. And if there was a game that Sunday, he would have missed it. That's an important point to consider for a former league MVP who is likely mounting his last stand to prove he’s still a viable starting quarterback.

That is the competitive disadvantage of carrying an unvaccinated player, spelled out in the simplest of terms. Either he or the team — or both if you believe that’s what happened here — can somehow stumble over a rule that everyone should know. It's a rule that wouldn’t have been in place for Newton if he had been vaccinated.

But Newton clearly is not, which has put himself and the Patriots into a scenario where they look inept for not knowing one of the most basic protocols for unvaccinated players. All of this is great for Mac Jones, who might be in a coin-flip with Newton for the starting job by the time the season starts (if he isn’t already). A coin flip that should probably include vaccination as part of the evaluation. If all things are equal, availability is important for starting quarterbacks. And the vaccinated player has an edge over the unvaccinated player when it comes to the protocols and ability to stay consistently available.

This is how the evaluation should be framed for every single NFL player now when it comes to vaccination. Unless there is an ironclad and demonstrable medical reason for a player to not get a vaccine, the shot should be considered part of the ability. Specifically, the availability. It should be that way for all the Minnesota Vikings players who seem to have an unending need for further investigation, as well as the smattering of others who continue to defy logic and choose less protection.

A week ago, they could argue that the vaccine was a drug only in an experimental phase. They could stand on it having an emergency use designation. And they could say the FDA hadn’t approved it, holding themselves up as if they’d ever taken only FDA approved substances in their entire lives.

They can’t say that anymore. The Pfizer vaccine has full FDA approval. That means it is supported by ample data, study and testing that stretches back to the beginning of this pandemic. That should be enough for NFL players who have clamored for more to hang onto when it comes to getting the shot.

Now they have it. And if players still refuse it now, the league should embrace making that decision part of their athletic evaluation. Or in the case of the creeping competitive disadvantage lying in wait, their devaluation.

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