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NFL Kicks Off Season With Impressive Vaccination Rate Among Players

Las Vegas Raiders vs San Francisco 49ers

Ezra Shaw / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Instead of mandating vaccination, the NFL placed harsh financial penalties on teams that have to reschedule or cancel games because of a COVID-19 outbreak among unvaccinated players or staff.
  • Health experts say the NFL rules are “carrot on a stick” approach and may be more successful than a mandate.
  • More than 90% of NFL players have been vaccinated as of September.

The NFL is kicking off the 2021 season on Thursday with a 93% vaccination rate among players. This uptake appears to be voluntary as the league has not mandated vaccinations, yet the pressure exists in the form of vaccine rules and financial penalties.

In July, the league laid out new incentives in which a team with unvaccinated players could risk forfeiting a game and losing profits if a COVID-19 outbreak disrupted the schedule.

According to the NFL memo, if a game cannot be rescheduled during the season because of a COVID-19 outbreak, the responsible team will be credited with a loss and will have to cover additional expenses. Neither team’s players will receive their weekly salary for the game.

Teams can incur additional sanctions on top of those listed, particularly if they do not follow the league’s COVID-19 protocol.

Tom Pelissero, reporter for NFL Network who obtained the memo, wrote on Twitter that the requirements were the NFL’s “strongest step yet to incentivize vaccinations.”

Before the vaccine rules, around 78% of NFL players had received at least one dose in mid-July, The Washington Post reported. As the league reached 93% vaccination rates among players and over 99% among staff, it may set an example for other sports leagues—or industries—in navigating vaccine hesitancy.

Certain teams like the Philadelphia Eagles already saw a high uptake of COVID-19 vaccines during the NFL preseason.

"The best thing we found out is to educate, let everybody know what the rules are, everything like that, and then focus on what’s going to win and lose you football games," Nick Sirianni, head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, said at a July press conference.

Vaccine Penalties Over Mandate

William Lang, MD, MHA, chief medical officer at WorldClinic, served as a consultant on establishing COVID bubbles for the Women’s National Basketball Association in 2020. He describes the current vaccination tactic as a “carrot on a stick” approach for coaxing players into getting vaccinated. 

The NFL rules may be more successful in incentivizing vaccinations than imposing a mandate, he says.

“Historically, when you mandate a vaccine, you oftentimes do not significantly increase the uptake rate of the vaccine because Americans being Americans say ‘you can't make me!’” Lang tells Verywell.

In 1998, the rollout of the Anthrax vaccine before an FDA-approval set a precedent for military vaccine refusals. Lang adds that the military was initially resistant to a mandate, which led to backlash and distrust among personnel.

An official NFL vaccine mandate has the potential to create a “firestorm” of resistance, he says, and it may not be worth the risk given the already high vaccination rate among players.

NFL COVID-19 Protocols For Employees

The NFL has said to “expect” vaccination requirements among team employees. This includes workers who are in close contact with players, like coaches, trainers, physicians, general managers, video personnel, security, and others. People who have a “bona fide” medical or religious reason for not getting the vaccine do not have to do so, but will not be permitted in restricted areas and cannot have direct contact with players.

A Layered Approach to COVID-19 Safety in Sports

The NFL COVID-19 protocols state that vaccinated players will undergo weekly testing while unvaccinated will test every day. All players and trainers will be subject to mask requirements indoors and during travel.

Vaccinations and testing measures are crucial due to the nature of the league and football as a money-making industry in the United States, Lang adds.

“Fundamentally, the Players Association wants to take care of players and the owners want to take care of getting games played,” he says. “By having this testing regimen, combined with all of the other layers of their defense in depth against COVID, it enables both of those goals to be met.”

These multi-layered measures help protect players because social distancing is nearly impossible in a football game. “You're not wearing a mask because you can’t play football on a pro-level with a mask on,” Lang says.

The vaccine efficacies against hospitalizations and deaths provide another reason for the NFL to support vaccination incentives, Lang adds. According to a recent CDC study, the mRNA vaccines are 86% effective against severe COVID-19.

The NFL does not mandate influenza shots, which are far less effective at reducing risks of hospitalization and death.

“Every couple of years there's a flu outbreak that could be consequential to the team's ability to play, but it's never been a huge deal,” Lang says. 

“The bottom line is that COVID vaccination is highly, highly effective at reducing hospitalization rates if we get people vaccinated,” he adds.

NFL COVID-19 Protocols For Fans

Across the league, fans are asked not to attend games if they tested positive for COVID-19 within 14 days before the games unless they're fully vaccinated. Fans would also agree to assume the risks of COVID-19 exposure when entering the stadium.

Other safety measures vary across different stadiums. Several teams such as the Las Vegas Raiders and Seattle Seahawks will require proof of vaccination to enter while some stadiums, but not all, will require fans to wear a mask.

NFL Vaccinations Protect More Than The Players

Jordan D. Metzl, MD, a sports medicine physician at Hospital for Special Surgery, stresses the importance of vaccinations for athletes, not just for themselves but for the health of those around them. He says the virus is unlike a concussion, in which only the football player can be affected by the injury.

People who are vaccinated can cast a “blanket of safety” over other people in their life as well, Metzl adds.

When working with athletes in his own practice, he tries to educate people about the real world health risks of COVID-19 and benefits of the vaccine. Ultimately, however, people need to make this decision for themselves. 

“Either the vaccine or the virus is going to find us,” he says. "It's better to be found by the vaccine.”

What This Means For You

The NFL vaccine rules have proved to be effective in driving vaccination rates among players and staff. As the new season kicks off, the league's safety protocols for the teams will be put to test. If you're attending a live game this season, make sure to check the stadium's COVID-19 requirements and protocols.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Tenforde MW, Self WH, Naioti EA, et al. Sustained Effectiveness of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Vaccines Against COVID-19 Associated Hospitalizations Among Adults — United States, March–July 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2021;70:1156-1162. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7034e2