When does a player’s individual freedom end and the good of the team begin? Most coaches would say the moment that the player decides to put on the uniform. But with vaccines, that line isn’t quite so clear-cut … and the consequences for choices are now bubbling up.
First, an anecdote. Just over a week ago, with his team down by two with seven seconds remaining in a critical win-or-go-home Game 7, Kevin Durant squared up 23 feet from the basket and let fly a shot that found the bottom of the net. Replays showed the tiniest sliver of his black-and-orange Nikes were on the 3-point line, and that meant Durant's shot only counted for two points.
Durant's Nets would go on to lose the game, and the series, in overtime. Had Durant's foot been two inches back, Brooklyn might well be in the Eastern Conference finals right now. Durant hadn't intended to shoot a 2-pointer. Those two extra inches closer to the basket didn't give him any material advantage. The Nets obviously would have loved to argue that the basket was close enough to three, so it should count as three, right?
A rule is a rule, no matter how much we might wish differently in the moment.
This past weekend, the NCAA removed NC State from the College World Series after two unvaccinated players tested positive for COVID, which in turn triggered a full-team test that revealed an outbreak among even vaccinated players. (Yes, you can still catch the virus when vaccinated. It’s called a “breakthrough,” it’s exceedingly rare, and it’s almost always inconsequential. That’s the whole purpose of a vaccine.) The team had to go through testing protocols because it still had unvaccinated players on its roster.
The Wolfpack’s dismissal followed pro golfer Jon Rahm’s removal from a tournament for testing positive earlier this month while leading by six strokes. He was in line for a $1.67 million payday, and if he'd been vaccinated, he wouldn't have had to be tested at all.
Seeing a theme here?
This isn't an issue of whether getting vaccinated is a good idea. Statistically, more than half of you reading this already are. The rest? Well, at this point you don't need guidance from some dude in a sports column. The issue here is how staying unvaccinated is particularly risky for athletes, given the potential penalties involved for themselves and their teams.
Let's be honest. It's absurd that an entire team has to leave an outdoor tournament when, all around them, fans sit side by side, often maskless, in the stands. Given what we know about the possibility of outdoor transmission of COVID, that makes no sense on its face. Golfers heading to the Open Championship next month have already complained about a similar discrepancy between thriving galleries and the monk-like living conditions of anyone actually swinging a club.
But here's the thing: these rules are still on the books. Every player now knows that a vaccination allows them to avoid many COVID protocols. Every team entered the College World Series knowing there was a chance of disqualification for positive tests. Jon Rahm entered a PGA Tour event knowing he could be kicked out if he tested positive. Soon enough, NFL players will begin training camp under similar rules.
Complain about the rules all you want, but they're still how the game is played in the summer of 2021. We’re not quite out of the pandemic yet, no matter how much we want to be. Just like there are three strikes to an out and three outs in an inning, there are requirements to test unvaccinated players, and penalties for unvaccinated players who test positive.
This has nothing to do with the idea of a vaccine being a "personal choice" or an “experimental drug” or an "infringement on freedom." This is about players specifically choosing to take a stance that can dramatically backfire not just on them, but on their team as a whole. Being on a team isn’t a constitutionally protected right, it’s an earned privilege that comes with obligations.
I feel terrible for the NC State players, just like I feel for the VCU men's basketball players and Notre Dame's men's hockey players who missed a chance to play out their season as a result of COVID infections. (Jon Rahm, I don't feel so bad for. He won the U.S. Open two weeks after getting the boot from the Memorial. He's fine.) But again, if all of the NC State players had been vaccinated, they wouldn't have had to go through testing protocols in the first place.
The question is, then: What's the extent of the obligation players have to their teammates? Teammates wouldn't put up with one of their own skipping workouts or failing to learn plays, no matter what the reason. At what point should teams and teammates expect one another to be vaccinated in order to hold up their end of the team bargain?
There's still widespread skepticism about the vaccines, particularly among the I'm-young-and-immortal generation that comprises most current athletes. There are also legitimate medical and personal reasons for not taking a shot. But there's also an ever-growing wealth of knowledge available about the vaccine, along with documented statistics attesting to its effectiveness. If athletes are going to “evaluate that on [their] own,” as Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold said earlier this month, well, it’s time for them to start doing their homework.
Businesses can legally require workers to be vaccinated as a condition of employment. Don't want to get vaccinated? Fine. Work somewhere else. Players who choose to remain unvaccinated will have to live with the consequences of that choice — increased testing, heavier restrictions on movement and interaction, and the possibility that they could be responsible for altering or detonating their team's season.
It's entirely possible that some teams — particularly non-unionized ones, like in college — are giving strong consideration to the idea of requiring vaccinations, given the heavy team penalties at stake for unvaccinated players that get infected. Indeed, the Buffalo Bills drew heat earlier this year for suggesting exactly that, saying the quiet part out loud. (Worth noting: the WNBA has managed to get to 99 percent vaccination without having to browbeat players into compliance.)
What's happening with these teams and players caught up in the vaccine era is painful and regrettable ... but also avoidable. Until rules catch up with reality, there are going to be some hard conversations in locker rooms, and some hard feelings too, if the decisions of unvaccinated athletes continue to affect the seasons and careers of their vaccinated teammates.
Rules are rules, like 'em or not.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from Yahoo Sports: