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NFL players’ reluctance to get COVID-19 vaccine could have competitive consequences
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NFL players’ reluctance to get COVID-19 vaccine could have competitive consequences

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Montez Sweat of the Washington Football Team celebrates during action against the Cincinnati Bengals at FedExField on November 22, 2020 in Landover, Md..

Montez Sweat of the Washington Football Team celebrates during action against the Cincinnati Bengals at FedExField on November 22, 2020 in Landover, Md. (Patrick McDermott/Getty Images/TNS)

NEW YORK — Saquon Barkley seemingly is vaccinated for COVID-19, because he watched Tuesday’s Giants minicamp practice from the cafeteria and interacted with colleagues with no mask on.

Unvaccinated players are required to wear masks in team facilities. Vaccinated players no longer have to. Unvaccinated players also can’t eat in the cafeteria.

For every star like Barkley who has seemingly gotten the shot, however, there are plenty of NFL players league-wide who have not received the vaccine yet, and who may decide not to get it at all.

Washington coach Ron Rivera said this week his player roster is “slowly” approaching a 50% vaccination rate. Giants coach Joe Judge, who got vaccinated himself, would not share any of his player numbers at all.

NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, asked about the league-wide player vaccination rate, said: “We don’t have all the information yet.”

Ex-Jets quarterback Sam Darnold said he isn’t vaccinated and that he’s “still got to think about all those certain things that go into it.

“It’s everyone’s choice whether they want to get vaccinated or not,” the Panthers QB said.

Washington edge Montez Sweat said he’s “not a fan” of the vaccine.

“I probably won’t get vaccinated until I get more facts and that stuff,” Sweat said. “I haven’t caught COVID yet, so I don’t see me treating COVID until I actually get COVID.”

Giants corner James Bradberry, who missed a loss to Cleveland last December because of a close contact, said: “I’m still trying to get all the information on the vaccinations and stuff so I can make a decision.”

And Giants safety Logan Ryan said: “I don’t know what … the safety measures will be” this season with unvaccinated players in the mix, but he isn’t worried because “last year we literally played games without, like, a coaching staff.”

Here’s the reality in this 2021 NFL season: Vaccinated players will get their pre-pandemic freedoms back and unvaccinated players will not.

There will be restrictions on their travel and facility use. They will have to continue to be tested for COVID-19 daily. They’ll have to stay in town during breaks. And most importantly, they still could miss games due to exposure to a high-risk close contact.

A vaccinated player will not have to quarantine at all if exposed to a person positive for COVID-19. An unvaccinated player will have to sit out at least five days.

Kevin and Donnie discuss Roger Goodell telling reporters he expects full capacity stadiums for the 2021 season.

So teams with large numbers of unvaccinated players will have more to manage and also will face greater risk of losing players on game days.

That seemed to be Bills coach Sean McDermott’s concern in May as he worried about reaching a needed threshold with QB Josh Allen and WR Cole Beasley pushing back against the vaccine.

The NFL and NFL Players’ Association are both encouraging players to get the vaccine, but it is not mandated. The league and union are continuing to negotiate the parameters of other evolving protocols.

Multiple reports have said the sides could agree to an 85% threshold of vaccinated players that could loosen some protocols in buildings throughout. But even then, unvaccinated players still would have to wear masks and get daily tests.

Some head coaches, therefore, are being proactive.

Reigning Super Bowl champion Bruce Arians, asked recently if he’d brought in any specialists to talk to the players, said: “I’m the specialist. If you want to go back to normal, get vaccinated. … It’s still a personal choice, but I don’t see a reason not to be vaccinated.”

Rivera actually had immunologist Kizzmekia Corbett speak to his players and provide information on Tuesday to clarify the subject and quell fears, and yet a day later, Sweat said he needed more facts.

“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,” Rivera said. “So hopefully that’ll happen.”

As the union protects every player’s right to make a personal choice, though, Smith didn’t seem to appreciate the excuse provided by the likes of Bradberry, Sweat and Darnold that they needed more info.

“We’ve encouraged players to get vaccinated from day one,” Smith said on a call. “There really shouldn’t be any excuse for not having the answers to the questions that they have. … Any player who has a question, call us.”

The league has been active since day one, too. The NFL has been coordinating with CVS pharmacies across the country to help players and their families get vaccinated for months.

And teams have made vaccination shots and facilities available to players and their families. The Giants arranged theirs through Hackensack Meridian Health.

“We do think that players and all personnel are safer if they’re vaccinated,” commissioner Roger Goodell said in late May.

It was similarly surprising to hear Ryan, the Giants safety and NFLPA rep, express uncertainty about how vaccinations would impact the 2021 season considering the guidelines and protocols already agreed to by the league and union.

Ryan added that he would not be advising teammates on the topic.

“It’s not my position or anybody’s position on this team to tell someone whether to be vaccinated or not,” Ryan said.

The NFL’s vaccination rate among staff is sky-high compared to players: 31 of 32 teams as of Friday morning had 90% of their Tier 1 and Tier 2 staff vaccinated, and it could be all 32 by the end of the weekend, a source said.

Having a lot of unvaccinated players also could put vaccinated staff members in the position of having to wear masks when inside the locker room or interacting closely with them for safety’s sake, in particular over the concern of carrying the virus to a family member.

NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills had told teams in May that players and staff had to get their first shot no later than this past week to achieve full vaccination status by the start of training camp in late July.

Giants safety Jabrill Peppers promptly got his first shot on Monday, but he said functioning normally in training camp wasn’t the reason.

“It’s just something I wanted to do,” Peppers said. “I’m not really thinking about it that way. It was something I wanted to do.”

Everyone has a different answer and different reason why or why not. But as the league and union continue to encourage inoculations, it bears monitoring whether some NFL teams will be able to return to normal while others are stuck in 2020 — and whether that impacts the 2021 season in a major way.

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