Vaccines work, and so do mandates. The NFL is proof.
As President Joe Biden issues new directives to try and boost the country’s vaccination rate and end the COVID-19 pandemic, 93.5 percent of NFL players have had at least one shot. The number is even better for coaches and staff, at 99-plus percent.
In a country where less than 74 percent of the eligible population has gotten at least one shot, those numbers are astoundingly good.
The NFL isn’t completely free of COVID-19, but the difference the vaccines have made is obvious. Those who’ve tested positive after being vaccinated have been either asymptomatic or have had milder symptoms for a shorter time. While outbreaks have spread like brushfire in schools, the NFL’s breakthrough cases have been contained to small clusters, despite its rosters being two and, at points during training camp, four times larger.
“Maybe,” Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president for player health and safety, said Friday, “this is a little bit of a harbinger for what the world could look like.”
While some shameless politicians and deceitful media personalities have tried to turn COVID measures into a nonsensical referendum on freedom, the NFL has taken the lead in modeling responsible behavior. Once vaccines became readily available, it doubled down on that.
All Tier 1 and 2 personnel – coaches and staff – were required to be vaccinated. While no similar mandate was issued for players, the NFL and NFL Players Association did everything but, using every tool they had to entice players to get jabbed.
Don’t want to wear a mask in the team facility? You don’t have to if you’re vaccinated! Want to eat in the team dining room or use the steam room? A shot is the price of admission. Family and friends want to come see you when you’re on the road? No problem – if you’re vaccinated.
And perhaps most important, players who are vaccinated don’t have to isolate if they’re identified as a close contact of someone with COVID-19 so long as they’re asymptomatic. That means no missed practices, no missed games. If someone who’s vaccinated does test positive, he can return after having two negative PCR tests within a 24-hour span, rather than sitting out 10 days.
“We have a really unique opportunity here to contribute to the public health knowledge about the pandemic, and particularly about the vaccinations,” said Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer.
The NFL is not immune to the misinformation and hardened beliefs that have made vaccination efforts so fraught across much of the country.
Cole Beasley thinks the science is unsettled, despite the technology used to produce the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines being around for decades, as well as reams and reams of data showing their success and safety. Adam Shaheen says he won’t let the NFL “strong arm” him into getting a vaccine – as if he didn’t have to be vaccinated to enter kindergarten. And grade school. And high school. And … well, you get the idea.
Lamar Jackson frames it as a “personal choice,” even though he would leave the Baltimore Ravens in a world of hurt should he get COVID-19 during the season. For a third time, I might add.
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In what should be an encouraging sign for the rest of the country, however, the NFL’s vaccination rate continues to go up. About half the players who weren’t vaccinated when training camp began now have at least one shot, Sills said, and there are players getting their first jab every day.
“You’re going to continue to see us presenting our data and showing what we’re finding in our own population and demonstrating the positive impact of vaccination,” Sills said. “It’s an important part of considering getting vaccinated.”
But the NFL can – and should – be doing more.
There needs to vaccination sites outside every stadium, at every game this season. Because teams don’t all operate their stadiums, they can’t all require proof of vaccination for entry. But they can provide some powerful incentives.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers let fans who could prove they’d been vaccinated take photos with the Lombardi Trophy this summer. Other teams could offer tickets. Jerseys. Free food and drinks. A prime parking spot. The chance to announce a future draft pick. The possibilities are endless.
The NFL is king of all things in this country, but nowhere is its power and reach more evident than in TV ratings. Use that leverage. Create 30- and 60-second PSAs on the importance – and safety – of the vaccines, and have Commissioner Roger Goodell tell CBS, FOX, NBC and ESPN he expects to see them during every game.
COVID-19 is probably never going to go away completely, but we can get to a point where it’s manageable. “A seasonal respiratory illness,” as Sills described it.
It’s an admirable goal. But if the NFL can manage it, it provides hope that the rest of the country can, too.