The country’s leading professional sports league announced Thursday that Covid outbreaks among unvaccinated players could force teams to have to forfeit games that cannot be rescheduled.
Multiple news organizations reported Thursday that the National Football League sent a memo to its 32 teams that any game postponed due to the coronavirus will not be granted time to be rescheduled outside of the designated 18-week season, and teams affected by an outbreak will be forced to forfeit if the calendar doesn’t line up.
The prospect of cancellations stands out as one of the most forceful steps taken by a high-profile company to nudge workers to get vaccinated shy of an outright requirement, and comes as the White House and public health officials are leaning on institutions to do more to encourage vaccination uptake.
“While there is no question that health conditions have improved from last year, we cannot be complacent or simply assume that we will be able to play without interruption — either due to Covid outbreaks among our clubs or outbreaks that occur within the larger community," the memo from Commissioner Roger Goodell reportedly states.
The burden of any financial fallout resulting from a game affected by a team Covid outbreak will also fall on that respective team, according to the memo.
The Biden administration repeatedly has said it is not requiring so-called vaccine passports or supporting nationwide vaccination mandates, instead preferring to leave private businesses and others to set their own rules.
"We know that companies, private-sector employees, health institutions, educational institutions will take steps in order to keep the people in their community safe," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday.
Vaccinations are tapering off across much of the country, even as the highly contagious Delta variant has increased caseloads and fatalities — with unvaccinated people making up the majority of those hospitalized with Covid.
Several high-profile outbreaks hit during last year’s NFL season, which ended in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers winning the Super Bowl in February and visiting the White House earlier this week.
While no game was ultimately canceled, a number of contests had to be reshuffled — such as an October Tennessee Titans-Buffalo Bills game that became the league’s second Tuesday night match-up since 1946.
The memo stated that across the NFL, more than 75 percent of players are either vaccinated or in the process of doing so and that more than half of all teams have crossed the 80 percent mark. In comparison, three-quarters of Major League Baseball teams have at least 85 percent of their players and on-field personnel vaccinated, and the Women’s National Basketball Association says 99 percent of its players are vaccinated.
The league said it will not mandate vaccinations among players, coaches or NFL staff, but it is imposing additional restrictions on unvaccinated players compared with those who are inoculated. Those include undergoing additional surveillance testing, mandatory mask wearing and social distancing from others in team facilities, as well as longer quarantine periods in the case of a positive Covid-19 test or close contact with someone else who tests positive.
The NFL Players Association sent a brief memo of its own Thursday, stating that the "same basic rules applied last year."
"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 memo states. "The protocols we jointly agreed to helped get us through a full season last year without missing game checks and are effective, when followed."
But some players have bristled at these policies. Arizona Cardinals star DeAndre Hopkins said he is questioning his future following Thursday's development.
"Never thought I would say this, But being put in a position to hurt my team because I don’t want to partake in the vaccine is making me question my future in the @NFL," Hopkins wrote on Twitter but later deleted the tweet.
He then tweeted simply, "Freedom?"
Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley has been outspoken about his opposition to getting vaccinated, including threatening to retire from playing football if necessary to avoid taking a shot.