The NFL has stopped short of making vaccinations mandatory for players, but the league’s loosened restrictions for vaccinated players detailed in a memo Wednesday highlights the potential challenges ahead for players who choose not to receive a coronavirus vaccine.
As part of the new coronavirus protocols for the 2021 season, vaccinated players will be tested every 14 days while unvaccinated players will be tested daily, along with stringent restrictions inside and outside team facilities.
The differences between what’s allowed for vaccinated and unvaccinated players could mean those who opt not to be immunized against the coronavirus will face more difficulties during the season, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Wednesday, as they navigate the more rigid protocols.
“The unvaccinated players are going to have a harder time in the season,” Zimmer said.
“They are going to be wearing masks, they’re going to have to social distance, they’ll have daily testing,” Zimmer continued. “They won’t go home for bye week, and they’ll have to come back here and test every day. When we go on the road, they won’t be able to go out to dinner with anybody. They’ll have to travel on buses differently, travel on planes differently, so a lot of meetings will be virtual like this is here.”
Several high-profile NFL players have said in recent weeks they haven’t been vaccinated, including the Washington Football Team’s Montez Sweat. On the Vikings, Harrison Smith, Adam Thielen and Sheldon Richardson said they haven’t received the shot. Quarterback Kirk Cousins declined to say if he had or not.
But about half of the players in the NFL are vaccinated, according to The Washington Post. Some teams have called in vaccine experts to answer questions and raise awareness, although Sweat said he was “not a fan” of Washington bringing an expert to speak with the team.
Minnesota followed a similar path as Washington, hosting Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, Wednesday morning to discuss the vaccine.
“He talked to them about why they should, even if they have had COVID, still get vaccinated because your antibodies are way off the charts,” Zimmer said. “You’re going to be safer if it comes back again. One of the players asked about if they would need to get a booster shot at some point. There is a lot of those things, and we are just trying to educate those guys.”
Teams will be divided somewhat based on who is vaccinated and who isn’t. Unvaccinated players must wear masks in the team facility and maintain social distancing; if there’s a high-risk exposure to someone with the coronavirus, vaccinated players won’t be required to quarantine, but unvaccinated players will; unvaccinated players will ride on a separate team plane and can’t eat meals with teammates; there’s a ban on social, media and marketing sponsorship activities for those who haven’t been vaccinated.
To Cousins, though, those rules won’t be all that unlike what players dealt with last season.
“We already lived it for one season,” Cousins said Wednesday. “It’s a fluid situation, as it has been since the COVID pandemic began. We’ll kind of take it one week at a time, one month at a time, and see where we are when we get to the season. You know, it’s so important that we focus on football as well, and make sure we’re winning football games. That’s what really it’ll be about.”
Former Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, said Thursday he was initially hesitant to get the vaccine but has since had the shot because he didn’t want to be restricted in any way from his new teammates and coaches.
“The rules are the rules,” Haskins said (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). “The NFL is a business. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the vaccine at first, but of course, I’ve gotten it because I wanted to be around teammates, be in meetings without necessarily social distancing. The biggest thing is doing what’s best for each other, what’s best for the team.”
That’s what stands out to Zimmer, too. There’s a large safety component, but with loosened protocols for vaccinated individuals, being a part of a football team becomes easier.
“For me, for instance, I don’t have to wear a mask,” Zimmer said. “We had a staff meeting the other day and everybody is in the same room. We can sit there and talk as opposed to doing this like we’re doing here. I know you guys know, I don’t like doing all of the media stuff, but I would much rather be sitting in a room talking to you then up at this camera and looking down at you.”