With training camps now opening, reality is perhaps setting in for many players: It’s time to either get vaccinated or accept a different set of rules and regulations than the rest of my teammates. As has been made clear for months now, the NFL will be greatly loosening restrictions for their COVID-19 protocols this year for players (and coaches and staff, and everybody else) who are fully vaccinated. Those who are not vaccinated will be dealing with much the same situation as last year, only, perhaps, worse.
At this point, according to the latest estimates, about 75 percent of the players around the league have at least gotten the first dose of a vaccine, with at least 13 teams at 85 percent or higher. Virtually every team has at least half of its players in the vaccination process or fully vaccinated, though there are players who will choose not to be vaccinated under any circumstances, even if it is in their professional favor to do so.
“It definitely poses a competitive advantage for higher vaccine rates on your team just because of the close contact [rules] and what happens if somebody does unfortunately get COVID, what can happen to the rest of the building”, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield recently acknowledged.
At least as the protocols are currently written—they can always be subject to change—players who are fully vaccinated would not have to quarantine if they come into high-risk close contact with an individual who is positive for COVID-19. Every team in the league last season had players miss games because they were close contacts, including the Steelers.
While it is still possible to contract the virus, particularly the more recent Delta variant, while being fully vaccinated, in addition to spreading it, the risk of having a serious adverse effect is reduced. The vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths, as well as infections, are now coming from those who are not vaccinated.
And Mayfield knows that even the fittest athletes in the world can be affected. His teammate, Pro Bowl edge rusher Myles Garrett, battled COVID-19 last year, and admitted that it took time before he finally felt like himself again—long after the season ended. Other high-level players who dealt with COVID-19 last year made similar comments.
From a camaraderie perspective, being unvaccinated on a team where most are vaccinated will be quite alienating this year, as those who are vaccinated will be able to freely associate with one another, unmasked, while others will be required to maintain social distance and wear masks.
But as we saw last year, things will likely change over the course of the year. Especially as the threat of the Delta variant grows, we may see protocols for the vaccinated tighten up. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that—every other league has seemingly been able to avoid any major breakthrough events, arguably short of the New York Yankees, as far as I’m aware—but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.