NFL teams cannot cut players who have not received the COVID vaccine. Thursday’s memo creates the clearest incentive yet to cut players who have not received the COVID vaccine.
The prospect of forfeiting games ties directly to outbreaks among unvaccinated players and/or staff. Thus, the fewer the number of unvaccinated players on a team, the lower the chance that unvaccinated players will force a team to take a loss without playing the game.
The financial penalties tied to forfeited or postponed games create an even greater incentive to shed unvaccinated players. Thursday’s memo explains that, for a rescheduled game due to a COVID outbreak among unvaccinated players on one of the teams, the team with the outbreak “will be responsible for all additional expenses incurred by the opposing team,” along with any reduction in revenue that is directed to the league-wide visiting-team pool for the postponed game. If the game is forfeited, the team responsible for the forfeit must make the payment to the league-wide visiting-team pool for the canceled game.
Other sanctions could apply. “If a game is cancelled because of a Covid outbreak among unvaccinated players/staff, in addition to the financial penalties identified above, the Commissioner retains the authority to impose additional sanctions, particularly if the Covid outbreak is reasonably determined to be the result of a failure by club personnel to follow applicable protocols,” the memo explains.
So, again, the fewer the unvaccinated players, the smaller the chance that teams will experience such competitive and/or financial hardships. This means that unvaccinated players on the roster bubble or close to it will be at extreme risk for being released — even though vaccination status technically cannot be a factor.
The NFL Players Association currently seems unlikely to attack teams that make decisions in part on vaccination status, as long as teams are discreet about it. (In other words, don’t say out loud what Bill G.M. Brandon Beane said earlier this year.) That won’t stop one or more players from insisting on filing a grievance, or from hiring outside counsel who would be far more aggressive about proving that the player would have been kept on the team but for his decision to not be vaccinated. (In any such grievance, Thursday’s memo would be Exhibit A.)
Then there’s the fact that some players won’t be cut even if they insist on not being vaccinated. Whether it’s skill or guaranteed salary or salary-cap consequences arising from a termination or trade, certain unvaccinated players are and will be untouchable.
Case in point: Per a source with knowledge of the situation, one NFL team currently has eight players who will not under any circumstances get the vaccine. And seven of those eight players will not under any circumstances be released because of it, due to their skills and abilities as players.
That likely will be the case for plenty of teams. Although some players who won’t be vaccinated have opted to sound off about it, others surely are choosing to be silent. As we get closer to Week One, we’ll surely hear more about who is and isn’t vaccinated, and about whether those players who aren’t vaccinated will be on 53-man rosters when the season starts.