Throughout the off-season, the N.F.L. had stopped short of requiring that its players and other team personnel receive a Covid-19 vaccination, instead strongly encouraging inoculation.
With training camps starting in earnest next week and the regular season less than two months away, that approach has shifted.
Commissioner Roger Goodell on Thursday sent a memo to all 32 teams outlining Covid-19 guidelines for the 2021 season that detail drastic penalties for teams with unvaccinated personnel, including the forfeiture of games. Any forfeits could result in players’ not being paid — if their infections are known to have caused an outbreak.
The N.F.L. expects to complete its regular season and its playoff slate within the scheduled time frame, and will postpone contests only under government or medical orders.
If an unvaccinated player or staff member is shown to have caused an outbreak that forces a schedule change, the team experiencing the outbreak will be held financially responsible for the other club’s expenses, the memo said. If the game cannot be rescheduled, the team experiencing the outbreak will forfeit.
For playoff-seeding purposes, that team will be credited with a loss, while the other will be credited with a win. If an outbreak occurs among vaccinated individuals in a “breakthrough” infection, the N.F.L. will try to minimize the competitive and fiscal disruption for both teams. The terms of the memo were agreed upon with the N.F.L. Players Association, said Dawn Aponte, the league’s chief football administrative officer.
The N.F.L.P.A. did not respond to a request for comment.
While the memo does not mandate vaccination, it represents the N.F.L.’s strongest stance yet amid the coronavirus pandemic, showing how seriously it wishes to avoid the hurdles of 2020. The new directives highlight the ongoing question of whether employers should require workers to be vaccinated and cast a hard line between vaccinated team personnel and their peers who are hesitant or loath to be inoculated.
Rick Dennison, an assistant coach for the Minnesota Vikings, on Friday was dismissed after refusing to be vaccinated, ESPN reported. The team said that it was continuing to discuss the issue with Dennison and clarified that he did not qualify for an exemption from the league’s coronavirus protocols. Cole Popovich, an assistant coach for the New England Patriots, also departed his team because of virus guidelines, according to ESPN.
The N.F.L. in June said that unvaccinated team personnel would lose access to so-called Tier 1 staff members, which amounts to an effective ban from the field, meeting rooms and direct interactions with players.
In a conference call with reporters, Allen Sills, the N.F.L.’s chief medical officer, said 80 percent of all players had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Friday. Other sports leagues have reported a high number of vaccinations. The W.N.B.A said in June that 99 percent of its players were vaccinated, while the N.B.A. reported 90 percent. More than two-thirds of Major League Baseball’s teams have reported an 85 percent vaccination rate.
But there is still wide variance among N.F.L. teams’ vaccination rates, with nine teams reporting a rate of greater than 90 percent among its players, while five teams have rates below 70 percent.
Goodell’s memo drew support from the White House.
“We certainly believe the biggest takeaway is that getting vaccinated is our ticket back to normal,” Jen Psaki, President Biden’s press secretary, said in a news conference on Friday. But some notable N.F.L. players took their opposition to vaccination mandates public after the league’s decree.
“Never thought I would say this, But being put in a position to hurt my team because I don’t want to take part in the vaccine is making me question my future in the @Nfl,” Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins wrote in a Twitter post that has since been deleted.
In another Twitter post later deleted by its author, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Leonard Fournette wrote, “Vaccine I can’t do it…….”
During the off-season, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley was perhaps the league’s most vocal opponent of vaccination. He consistently posted messages on Twitter expressing his resistance and on Friday argued with a teammate, defensive end Jerry Hughes, who supported vaccination.
Last season, despite outbreaks at team facilities that caused a slew of schedule changes, the league completed its season within the confines of its planned start and end dates. The N.F.L. expanded roster sizes to account for players needing to quarantine, and those rules will remain intact in 2021, Aponte said.
“I do think the biggest difference between last year and this year is the fact that there is a vaccination available with the roster flexibility still in place,” she said. “I think that our objective to play all 272 games within an 18-week season is something that is both feasible and will remain our focus.”
In April, as Covid-19 vaccines became widely available, the N.F.L. said all coaches and support staff without medical or religious justification must be inoculated, or they would be restricted from closely interacting with players. As infection rates in the country declined, the N.F.L. and the N.F.L. Players Association relaxed the application of virus-related protocols, such as masking and physical-distancing measures, for vaccinated individuals.
Unvaccinated players still face several restrictions, including daily testing, capacity limitations in weight rooms and a requirement to travel on a separate plane.
While the numbers lag compared with the pandemic surges last spring and winter, hospitalizations and new daily infections have increased in recent weeks, fueled by the emergence of the Delta variant. Sills said the high vaccination rates within the league gave him confidence that most players were choosing to be inoculated.
“I think that reflects the fact that they’re thinking about this very thoughtfully and they’re considering both risks and benefits, and in those cases, deciding that the benefits for them would motivate them to choose to begin vaccination,” Sills said.
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