With all 32 teams set to open training camps over the next week, the NFL Thursday unveiled new COVID-19 “operating principles’’ for the 2021 season that include significant penalties for teams that suffer outbreaks among unvaccinated players.
Specifically, the NFL informed teams that if a game cannot be rescheduled during the 18-week regular season (17 games and a bye week) due to an outbreak among unvaccinated players, the team with the outbreak will suffer a forfeit and the loss credited to their record, with the opposing team credited with a win.
Also, if a game is canceled and cannot be rescheduled, then neither team’s players will get paid. Players receive their yearly salaries on a weekly basis during the regular season.
The league also said it did not anticipate adding a 19th week to the regular season to try to fit in canceled games. The NFL had to delay some games last year but ultimately was able to play all 256 in the regular season.
But the league also made clear that it would not easily cancel a game, writing in the memo to all teams that games would not be called off “simply to avoid roster issues’’ within a position group. In other words, if a team doesn’t have a healthy quarterback and he was not vaccinated, then that is that team’s problem.
The memo was viewed as one of the strongest messages yet sent by the NFL that it hopes all players and club personnel will be vaccinated.
But just in case players/staff remained hesitant, Thursday’s guidelines likely will spur teams to further encourage all to get the vaccine.
Indicative of the tenor of the memo, the league wrote that “every club is obligated under the Constitution and Bylaws to have its team ready to play at the scheduled time and place. A failure to do so is deemed conduct detrimental. There is no right to postpone a game. Postponements will only occur if required by government authorities, medical experts or at the Commissioner’s discretion.’’
Among other financial penalties, the league informed teams that if a game is rescheduled due to an outbreak among unvaccinated players that the team with the outbreak will be responsible for “all additional expenses incurred by the opposing team.’’
“We will seek to minimize the burden on the opposing club or clubs,” the memo states. “If a club cannot play due to a Covid spike in vaccinated individuals, we will attempt to minimize the competitive and economic burden on both participating teams.”
Teams also were informed that if a game has to be canceled, the league can impose additional sanctions at its own discretion “particularly if the Covid outbreak is reasonably determined to be the result of a failure by club personnel to follow applicable protocols.’’
The league wrote in the memo that “nearly all clubs’’ have vaccinated 100% of their Tier 1 and Tier 2 staffs (Tier 1 including coaches and football personnel and Tier 2 consisting of additional staff who may come in contact with players).
The memo stated that “more than 75% of players are in the process’’ of getting vaccinated and that more than half of NFL teams have vaccination rates of better than 80%.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll said when the team finished its offseason program in June that he anticipated “the bulk’’ of Seattle players to have gotten vaccinated. At that time, Carroll said the Seahawks were “hovering around 70%’’ vaccinated but noted the team was holding a “vaccination event’’ on the final day of the offseason program when he hoped many other players would get vaccinated.
The NFL had earlier informed players that players who are not vaccinated will essentially have to abide by last year’s protocols, including undergoing daily testing and essentially being quarantined when on the road. The league also announced significant financial penalties for unvaccinated players who are deemed to have broken protocols.
Receiver Tyler Lockett, who is the team’s player representative to the NFL Players Association, said in June that he had gotten vaccinated but would not tell his teammates what to do.
“I’m not about to force people to get it or anything like that,’’ Lockett said. “Like I think at the end of the day it’s their decision. But for me, you know I made the best decision that was right for me and my family. And so I ended up getting it. But all I can do is just tell them what I know and tell them why I decided to get it. But I can’t force somebody what they want to do with their life.’’
According to Pro Football Talk, the NFLPA sent an email to players Thursday noting that “the same basic rules” applied last year in terms of players not getting paid if a game had not been held, and saying the NFLPA was on board with the league’s operating principles.
“The only difference this year is the NFL’s decision to impose additional penalties on clubs which are responsible for the outbreak and the availability of proven vaccines,” the email said, according to PFT. “The protocols we jointly agreed to helped get us through a full season last year without missing game checks and are effective, when followed.”
Lockett reacted to Thursday’s news on Twitter — not to the vaccine aspect of it but rather that players would not be paid if a game is not played.
“If we only get paid on Sundays why are we going to practice on Monday – Saturday lol,” Lockett tweeted.
Cornerback D.J. Reed, who said in the spring he was 50-50 on whether to get the vaccine, tweeted shortly after the news broke of Thursday’s operating principles that he had gotten the vaccine but only grudgingly.
“I didn’t want to get the vaccine,” Reed tweeted. “We don’t know the long term effects. If you have the vaccine you can still catch COVID. The NFL & NFLPA made getting the vaccine a competitive advantage. I just got my vaccine because I don’t want to hinder my team, idk how I feel about that.”
Reed’s comment seemed to make clear that players are getting the message that if the NFL isn’t outright mandating vaccines — which the league insists it won’t do — Thursday’s memo was another strong signal that players should probably view it that way.