Gentle Encouragement Wasn’t Going to Be Enough

Amid widespread misinformation and antivaccine propaganda, pro football needed to put more pressure on players.

Illustration of a football player and a vaccine needle.
Getty; Adam Maida/The Atlantic

Here’s something I almost never say: The NFL is right.

When pro football announced last week that it will impose stiff penalties on teams that experience a COVID-19 outbreak involving unvaccinated players, it exposed a serious vaccination divide among its athletes. Fans also learned in real time that some of their favorite NFL stars are not only vaccine-hesitant but also susceptible to some of the same misinformation that has duped millions of other Americans.

Despite their superior access to doctors and medical experts, many professional football players haven’t been persuaded to get a shot. In a tweet that he has since deleted, the Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins wrote: “Never thought I would say this, but being put in a position to hurt my team because I don’t want to partake in the vaccine is making me question my future in the NFL.” Several Buffalo Bills took to social media with their opinions on the NFL’s announcement. The wide receiver Cole Beasley, a vocal opponent of the COVID-19 vaccines, said he hadn’t wavered in his position. “Nothing has changed,” Beasley tweeted. “I’m still livin freely. Goodnight.”

Although some of his teammates, including the wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Stefon Diggs, tried to rally support for vaccination, others stirred up fears and spread wild conspiracy theories. In a tweet that has since been deleted—this seems to be a running theme—the Bills offensive lineman Jon Feliciano falsely declared that the infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci is “part of Pfizer” and that “it’s been proven that Covid was made in lab.” Feliciano went on to say, “That’s why ppl don’t want to get the vaccine. Sad to come to the realization that you can not trust the government. #dontshootthemessenger.”

For months, employers and political leaders have tried to strike a delicate balance between pushing Americans to get vaccinated and allowing people to make their own decisions. The NFL is unwilling to see another season devolve into disarray because of the virus, so the league has decided that gently insisting players get vaccinated isn’t enough.

In announcing last Thursday that the league would not reschedule any games canceled by a COVID-19 outbreak involving unvaccinated personnel, the NFL was sending a clear message to players about what they are potentially risking if they choose not to be vaccinated. A game cancellation means that the team suffering the outbreak will have to forfeit and be credited with a loss. That team will also be responsible for its opponents’ financial expenses and could face additional penalties if the outbreak “is reasonably determined to be the result of a failure by club personnel” to follow the league’s COVID-19 safety rules. Unvaccinated players will also be subjected to a $14,650 fine every time they violate those protocols.

These new directives are as close as the NFL can come to mandating vaccinations without overtly doing so. Even before last week’s announcement, the NFL was already moving to make life difficult for unvaccinated players. They are subjected to daily testing, must wear a mask at team facilities, must practice physical distancing, have to quarantine after exposure, can’t interact with family and friends during travel, and can’t eat in the cafeteria or use the sauna or steam room.

Some players think the restrictions and penalties are unfair, but the league should be strategically heavy-handed about vaccinations because its product can’t thrive unless players are healthy and available.

Although I often criticize the NFL for sacrificing moral rectitude for the sake of the bottom line, in this case the financial implications deserve consideration. Last year, the NFL forged ahead with a full season, but COVID-19 outbreaks on several teams completely upended the schedule. After the New England quarterback Cam Newton tested positive for the coronavirus, the Patriots-Chiefs game was delayed by a day, and Newton’s team members had to fly into Kansas City on the same day that they played. Newton, who had trouble focusing after his bout with the virus, later admitted that he wasn’t quite right after his return. The Buffalo Bills tight end Tommy Sweeney’s 2020 season was cut short after he was diagnosed with myocarditis, a heart inflammation frequently connected to the coronavirus.

Considering how disruptive last season was, the NFL would have been foolish to not do whatever it could to protect both its players and its product. While some degree of vaccine hesitancy is common, and the public should demand accountability and transparency from the medical community, the outright hostility to the vaccine on the part of so many NFL players is deeply troubling.

Last month, the Washington Football Team invited the renowned immunologist Kizzmekia S. Corbett to speak with players and address any questions they might have about the coronavirus vaccines. Corbett isn’t just a random expert; she helped create the Moderna vaccine. Despite Corbett’s impeccable credentials and expertise, Washington’s defensive end Montez Sweat remained staunchly opposed to vaccination even after hearing from her. He claimed he needed more information, although Corbett was on hand to answer any questions he might have had. “I probably won’t get vaccinated until I get more facts and that stuff,” Sweat said.

That some NFL players draw a line at getting a potentially life-saving vaccine is ironic. Every time they take the field, football players put themselves at risk of brain trauma and face the possibility of countless other potentially debilitating injuries. A fixation on the tiny risks of vaccines used successfully by hundreds of millions of people is hard to justify—especially given that NFL players are widely known to use Toradol, a painkiller whose side effects include hearing loss and nightmares. In May, the former NFL player Albert Haynesworth received a kidney transplant due to a condition that he blames on Toradol. Haynesworth has said that he took a shot of the drug before nearly every game he played. Last month, the NFL Players Association sent a memo to players urging that they curb their usage of the painkiller because it causes major bleeding.

NFL players and coaches are notorious for doing whatever it takes to win or to stay on the field. Apparently, being vaccinated is a bridge some aren’t willing to cross. Earlier this summer, the NFL released a statement saying that certain league employees—including all coaches—would have to be vaccinated to be on the field. In the past few days, the New England Patriots let go of Cole Popovich, an offensive line coach, because of his refusal to be vaccinated. The Minnesota Vikings were reported to have parted with the offensive line coach and run-game coordinator Rick Dennison for the same reason, but the two parties have subsequently reached an agreement allowing Dennison to remain with the team in some capacity.

Regardless, the NFL’s policy change provides a reference point for other high-profile employers—including government agencies—that are considering stronger steps to encourage employees to get their shots. Although being vaccinated is often framed as an individual decision, it’s not. Unvaccinated players could cost NFL teams wins and money, and could jeopardize the livelihood of everyone around them. The average NFL career lasts 3.3 years, so it’s smart for an NFL player to maximize his time as a professional. Taking a hard-line stance against vaccines that have largely proved to be effective and safe is not only unproductive but, in the long run, a losing proposition.