A popular saying in football is that a player’s best ability is his availability. The idea explains why injured players in professional football are often cut, released, or relegated to lesser roles. It’s why an NFL player’s history of missing games can keep him from getting a big contract. It’s why players who face criminal allegations are handled according to whether they’ll miss time on the field.
And it’s also the reason why, amid the NFL’s emphatic push to make sure that players get vaccinated against COVID-19, those who refuse a shot may find themselves expendable—and rightly so.
No one should have been surprised last week when the New England Patriots released Cam Newton, a former league MVP who has declined to say whether he has been vaccinated and insisted that the matter is a personal decision. In late August, the quarterback—who was unable to play in an important road game against the Kansas City Chiefs last season after testing positive for COVID-19—missed multiple days of practice because he did not properly adhere to the NFL’s coronavirus-safety protocols, which require more stringent precautions for unvaccinated players than for vaccinated ones.
According to the Patriots, Newton had gone to a team-approved medical appointment outside of New England. Consistent with league protocols that would apply to any of the approximately 200 players who remain unvaccinated, Newton was required to undergo daily COVID-19 testing by the NFL. While away, he did take a test daily and was negative. But because it wasn’t at a NFL facility, he was not allowed to return to his team for five days.
The Patriots released a statement that characterized Newton’s recent protocol violation as a “misunderstanding.” And coach Bill Belichick said Newton’s vaccination status had nothing to do with his being released. But fans can reasonably wonder whether the quarterback—who entered training camp as the starter—would still have a job if he’d been vaccinated.
With Newton out, the rookie quarterback Mac Jones, the Patriots’ first-round draft pick this year, was able to gain valuable experience in Newton’s absence and assume control of the position. Even before Newton missed practice, Jones was nipping on Newton’s heels because of his strong performance in practice and preseason games. Once Newton was out, Jones’s availability helped win him the starting job.
The overwhelming majority of athletes in the NFL have gotten the message that vaccination is good for their health and their career. More than a month after the league announced its current protocols, 93 percent of players have gotten shots—a rate far higher than among all American adults. Late last month, shortly after the league fined Isaiah McKenzie $14,650 for failing to wear a mask at a Buffalo Bills facility, the wide receiver broke down and got a shot. Posting a photo of his new vaccination card on Instagram, he wrote, “They got me! @NFL you win!” Money and playing time are incentives that most professional athletes clearly understand.
The subject remains touchy. Last week, Jacksonville Jaguars coach Urban Meyer received criticism for admitting that he paid attention to a player’s vaccination status when making decisions about roster cuts. “Can I say that that was a decision-maker? It was certainly in consideration,” Meyer said Tuesday. The NFL Players Association then announced that it has opened an investigation into Meyer’s comments. But although protecting players’ job security is the union’s duty, Meyer’s thought process was completely logical. Unvaccinated players are a liability to their team and their fellow athletes.
NFL quarterbacks are generally the face of their franchise. A quarterback who chooses not to be vaccinated also is choosing to jeopardize the livelihood of his teammates and coaches, and undermine his team’s ability to win games. Last month, the Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has said he won’t get vaccinated, was put on the team’s reserve/COVID-19 list after being designated a “high-risk close contact” because his teammate Kellen Mond tested positive. Cousins had to quarantine for five days before he was eligible to return to practice.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has been vocal about his frustration with unvaccinated players on his team. As of early August, the Vikings reportedly had one of the lowest vaccination rates in the NFL, and Cousins—who has one of the most lucrative contracts in the NFL—is setting the wrong example. Last month, a hospital in his Michigan hometown ended a partnership with Cousins because of his outspoken opposition to getting vaccinated.
Ironically, because of the Vikings’ enormous investment in Cousins, they have to accommodate him to some degree. The Patriots, however, could afford to discard Newton. His vaccination status likely wasn’t the sole reason he was released, but it didn’t help.
It will be interesting to see what Newton’s career options are going forward. Newton is 32 years old and is running out of opportunities to be a starting quarterback in the NFL. If you’re an NFL team in need of a quarterback, why risk signing Newton if you know his vaccination status might keep him off the field?
Because availability matters.