Opinion: Anti-vaccine players will affect 2021 NFL season. You OK with that?

The showdown is coming, and it will leave scars. On the one hand, we love our NFL. On the other hand, not everyone loves the COVID-19 vaccine … and that includes a significant portion of NFL players.

You can see where this is headed.

Shortly after training camp starts next month, an NFL player will test positive for the coronavirus. No, several will. Given a sample size this large, with more than 3,000 players invited to NFL camps around the league and a U.S. positivity rate hovering around 2%, well, you can do the math. Or here, let me do it for you: Looks like 2% of 3,000 is … 60 players.

Two per team, give or take.

Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley says he won't get vaccinated. (Photo: Jeffrey T. Barnes, AP)

We love our liberty, don’t we? Give us that – or give us death. Patrick Henry said something along those lines in 1775, shortly before becoming governor of colonial Virginia, but only U.S. freedom from British rule was at stake.

Patrick Henry didn’t play quarterback for the New York Jets. He didn’t have season tickets to the Indianapolis Colts, either. The choice in 1775, that was simple. But this is football.

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Incentivizing vaccinations

Federal laws “do not prevent an employer from requiring all employees physically entering the workplace to be vaccinated for COVID-19.” That’s a May 21 update on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website. There are provisions for religious beliefs and the like, but by and large, U.S. law is clear:

NFL teams can tell their players to get vaccinated. They won’t, of course. NFL owners know the NFL Players Association would object, so they’ve avoided that hassle by incentivizing a vaccination.

So to speak.

At Walmart, employees get $75 for showing proof of vaccination. United Airlines is paying considerably more; vaccinated pilots receive up to 13 hours of salary, flight attendants 9 3/4 hours. Leery of a vaccine mandate, some employers are offering a carrot.

The NFL is offering the stick.

Don’t get vaccinated, the NFL has said, and you’re stuck with 2020 protocols – daily COVID tests, mandatory masks and social distancing, travel restrictions and even the inability to shower or lift weights with teammates if those areas have reached capacity limits.

The NFLPA agreed to those terms, which didn't go over well with Buffalo Bills receiver Cole Beasley, who ripped into NFLPA leadership.

“The players association is a joke,” Beasley wrote last week on Twitter. “Call it something different. It's not for the players. … A lot of other NFL players hold my position as well but aren’t in the right position in their careers to be so outspoken. I’m not going to take meds for a leg that isn’t broken,” he wrote on June 18, similar to something Washington defensive end Montez Sweat had said nine days earlier:

“I haven’t caught COVID yet,” Sweat said, “so I don’t see me treating COVID until I actually get COVID.”

The vaccine isn’t a cure, obviously. It’s preventative. But with so much disparate content available online, and so many irresponsible places posting it, folks are confused. There was a rumor going around recently that the vaccine actually magnetizes the body. Videos and everything, of paperclips clinging to the spot where the shot was administered.

It’s nonsense, of course, debunked beyond question. But in a world that grows dumber by the day, some listen only to voices that will tell them what they want to hear. And so Cole Beasley compares preventing a highly communicable disease that has killed more than 600,000 Americans to treating a broken leg. And Montez Sweat says he won’t get the vaccine until he’s already sick.

Nationwide, the debate roils. The U.S. vaccination rate is 45.6%. 

According to the Washington Post, 16 teams have seen at least 55% of the roster receive vaccinations. Three teams have a vaccination rate of 80% or more. The four NFL teams with the lowest vaccination rates? The Jaguars, Chargers, Cardinals and Colts.

As for Bills receiver Beasley, he did say something everyone can embrace:

“I understand completely why the NFL is doing this,” he wrote on Twitter. “It gives them the freedom to make the most money as possible again if everyone is vaccinated. But will anyone fight for the players or nah?”

Well, that’s the showdown I referred to earlier. Are we willing to fight for football players – or for football?

On this issue, they’re not the same thing.

It's about all of us

You can see how this will go down. A key NFL player tests positive, or there’s an outbreak among a handful of teammates, and the competitive balance is affected. We tolerate injuries, even in practice, because it’s bad luck. It happens.

Are we going to tolerate this? How would you feel, knowing vaccines boast a success rate north of 95%, if unvaccinated players are sidelined because of COVID-19? Playoff spots routinely come down to a single game. Can you imagine?

Because this … this wouldn’t be bad luck. It doesn’t have to happen. Getting vaccinated is a choice – as personal liberties tend to be – but this one impacts a lot more than the person involved. That’s why this entire issue, since the pandemic began shutting down businesses and sports leagues in March 2020, is so complicated:

It’s not just about you. Or me. It’s about us, with this inconvenient truth: What I do could affect you.  And vice versa.

We’ve seen glimpses of this conflict – personal liberty vs. community responsibility – in the sports world. Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, who finished fifth in MVP voting this season, was withheld Sunday from Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals after a positive COVID-19 test. The Suns beat the Los Angeles Clippers anyway, but imagine if they hadn’t. Would teammates and fans have defended Paul’s pursuit of liberty, or hold him responsible for letting everyone else down?

U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm tested positive for COVID-19 during the Memorial Tournament on June 5, and was pulled from an event he was leading. His reaction off the 18th green, after finishing Round 3 with a six-shot lead, was heartbreaking – but in an individual sport like golf, who did he hurt beyond himself?

In boxing, another individual sport, unvaccinated lightweight champion Teofimo Lopez tested positive for COVID-19 on June 15, five days before his title bout with George Kambosos Jr. The fight was postponed, and Kambosos is furious. Fight promoter Ryan Kavanaugh says Lopez won’t be ready anytime soon.

"Last I heard, he had 102 (degrees Fahrenheit) fever and 90% oxygen. He's also got asthma," Kavanaugh told DAZN, the fight’s streaming provider. "He's going to be very affected by this. It's not like, 'Oh, he'll be better in four days.' He needs time. He couldn't even shadowbox for 45 seconds without basically collapsing.”

That’s another factor for the equation: The potential danger of the coronavirus, even to a world-class athlete like Teofimo Lopez (or Cole Beasley or Montez Sweat). But that portion of this issue is a personal choice. Get the vaccine, don’t get it; the risk to your body is up to you.

The risk to those around you … is that up to you as well? Is that fair?

That’s the question, and an NFL player – along with his teammates, coaches and fans – will face the answer soon enough.

Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/gregg.doyel.

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