By Connor Thomas
Yesterday afternoon, the NFL officially upped the ante on their COVID protocols ahead of the 2021-22 season. In a memo from Commissioner Roger Goodell to the teams, it was outlined that this year, games that were unable to be played as a result of a COVID outbreak among non-vaccinated players could lead to complete forfeitures of games. Not only would the team responsible suffer for such an outbreak, but the new rules also mean that both teams, regardless of which team has the outbreak, would not receive game checks, and the loss for the forfeiting team would not be counted towards draft position. Fans would watch their team not only lose a game, and lose their opportunity to watch for a week, but could also see a team that is bottom 3rd of the league lose significant draft positioning because of a forfeit of this kind.
This is a huge move by the league to attempt to influence more players to receive the COVID vaccine and avoid such an outbreak from happening. Last year, the NFL was lighter on penalties for outbreaks of the virus, with the most notable being their decision to force the Denver Broncos to compete in a game without an available QB on their roster. It appears that this time around, Goodell and company are being even more forceful with penalties, considering that a vaccine is now readily available. Already multiple players, highlighted by DeAndre Hopkins and Jalen Ramsey, have come out against the new COVID rules, questioning the strict penalties and showing how it could draw the ire of players around the league.
Let’s first be clear about what these new rules are saying. No one is being forced to take the vaccine. Each player does still have the individual choice to receive or not receive the vaccination for COVID. What the rules are saying is that you run the risk, if you choose to remain unvaccinated, of causing a COVID outbreak that will be potentially punished by the league more severely than what they would have last season in the same scenario. So if, say, DeAndre Hopkins chooses not to get vaccinated, and other WRs on the Arizona Cardinals follow his lead and exercise their right to not receive the vaccine, there will not be any penalties from the league passed down on the Cardinals for those decisions. What COULD happen, is that if the Cardinals WR room then has an outbreak and makes a game, in the eyes of the league, unsafe to be played due to that outbreak, the teams could both lose their game checks, (100s of thousands of dollars for some players), the Cardinals forfeit the game, and the draft position of the team is affected negatively.
It is well within the rights of the NFL to penalize teams that make their season more difficult to complete, especially considering a vaccine is now available. The league IS NOT forcing players to be vaccinated, but they have every right to look at the situation and deem that the ability of their league to play games increases the more players that are vaccinated, and then come up with new rules and penalties that lend towards that idea. The NFL is not infringing on any players’ liberties to choose how to handle their own health, but they have clearly sent the first warning shot across the bow of players who are choosing to opt out of the COVID vaccine that they are playing with fire by not doing so. It will be incredibly interesting to see how this affects the league, and the vaccination rate of players, going forward.