In 2020, the NFL struggled through an uncertain, staccato season as COVID-19 outbreaks devastated locker rooms, forcing teams to bench stars, delay matchups, and play in empty stadiums. One year later, the NFL is trying to leave its pandemic season in the past, preparing for a normal season in front of packed crowds for the first time since 2019—all thanks to America’s mass vaccination push. But even with the solution to the NFL’s woes readily available, some players and coaches are hesitant to get the vaccine.
As of now, the NFL is not requiring players to be vaccinated. Coaches and team personnel, on the other hand, have a strong incentive to get the shot. If a coaching staff member doesn’t get the vaccine by the end of the week, they reportedly lose their Tier 1 status, which means being banned from the practice field, meeting rooms, and direct interactions with players. According to NFL Network reporter Tom Pelissero, the league is giving unvaccinated coaches until the end of this week to get their first dose. “For many coaches, there are two choices as of now: Get vaccinated or spend the season in your office,” noted Pelissero.
The disparity has resulted in a coaching staff that’s vaccinated at a much higher rate than players, per Pelissero. And it’s put coaches in a difficult position. They can’t require players to get vaccinated; all they can do is try to convince them. On Tuesday, Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera brought in immunologist Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett to inform the team about vaccines and address questions. Rivera said that all of his coaching staff and personnel are vaccinated, but less than half of his players have received doses. “We’re slowly getting more and more players vaccinated,” he told reporters. “They’ve got to make a choice. We’re trying to stress the fact that if we can get to herd immunity, we’ll really be able to get out there and enjoy things, so hopefully that’ll happen.”
It’s unclear whether Corbett was able to change hearts and minds, however. On Wednesday, defensive end Montez Sweat told reporters that he’s “not a fan” of the vaccine. “I probably won’t get vaccinated until I get more facts and that stuff,” he said. “I haven’t caught COVID yet, so I don’t see me treating COVID until I actually get COVID.” (Reporters have stated the obvious: that the vaccine is meant to help prevent recipients from catching the virus to begin with, not treat it.)
Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold, who’s expected to be the team’s starter this season, also expressed hesitation this week, telling reporters on Wednesday that he is not vaccinated. “There’s a ton of different things that go into it. I’m gonna evaluate that on my own and make the best decision that I feel is the best for myself,” he said. In turn, Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule explained that he won’t “tell anyone what to do. It’s their personal decision. As with any topic in life, I always say do your research, but do it from the right sources. Talk to doctors, talk to your doctors, talk to our doctors.” Rhule did add that he has made sure his players know “the difference between being vaccinated and unvaccinated. There are differences in the protocols, and there will be differences in training camp.”
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