Near the end of the Bears’ mandatory minicamp six weeks ago, coach Matt Nagy was asked whether there was a competitive advantage to getting his players vaccinated.
He answered carefully. He first veered into his own experience — fully vaccinated, he had been able to leave his mask in the car for the first time that day — before talking about the Bears’ efforts in educating players about the coronavirus. He talked about NFL rules in place for unvaccinated players. And then he got to the point.
“For us, we would love for everybody to get their vaccinations,” he said.
On the eve of training camp — players across the league will report over the next week, with Bears veterans on Tuesday — more than half of NFL teams have vaccination rates of at least 80% among their players. More than 75% of players leaguewide are at least in the process of being vaccinated. Nearly all the teams have 100% of their coaches and staff members vaccinated after the NFL made the shot mandatory except for legitimate exemptions.
On Thursday, the NFL targeted any unmoved players with the most well-worn of all coaching motivational techniques: the competitive advantage.
In a letter sent to team officials, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said any outbreak caused by an unvaccinated player could cost his team a victory. The team with a breakout would forfeit.
“If a game can’t be rescheduled and is canceled due to a COVID outbreak among unvaccinated players on one of the competing teams, the team with the outbreak will forfeit and will be deemed to have played 16 games for purposes of draft, waiver priority, etc.,” Goodell wrote in the memo.
For the first time, teams are scheduled to play 17 games, the result of the new collective bargaining agreement. The league does not plan to add an extra regular-season week to play postponed games. Cancel a game, and players from both teams would lose a week’s pay. The same rule applied last year.
It’s fair to wonder whether incentives, disincentives or threats will move players who have gone this long without receiving a free vaccination from their employer. One of the league’s biggest stars seemed shaken by the memo.
“Never thought I would say this,” Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins tweeted. “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, who’d owe the Cardinals a chunk of his signing-bonus money if he walked away, soon deleted the tweet.
During mandatory minicamp in mid-June, there was little uniformity in the Bears’ vaccination status. Running back Damien Williams and wide receiver Darnell Mooney said at the time they’d probably get the shot, center Sam Mustipher said he was due for his second one in June and tight end Cole Kmet said he’d keep his decision private.
Unwilling to mandate player vaccinations, the NFL spent most of the offseason trying to do the next-best thing. The league incentivized players to get the jab by making it inconvenient for them not to. When training camp starts, unvaccinated players will be tested for the virus daily. They’ll have to wear masks indoors and will be banned from eating meals with teammates, among other restrictions. When they travel, they won’t be able to leave the team hotel except to play in preseason games.
Goodell’s memo Thursday just added to that list of motivations.