Even before the July 22 memo from the NFL that raised the possibility of forfeits due to outbreaks among unvaccinated players and staff, the risks of choosing not to be vaccinated for NFL players were clear. The July 22 memo served only to underscore the reality that teams have an incentive to include unvaccinated players among the 37 players on each team who find themselves without employment when the rosters drop on August 31 from 90 to 53.
It should now be crystal clear that, despite the rule that unvaccinated players can’t be released due to their vaccine status, it will be a factor in the final shaping of a roster.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who lost three unvaccinated quarterbacks for a Saturday night scrimmage, praised the one who did the smart thing, and ripped all who refuse to.
“He’s out there,” Zimmer said of Jake Browning. “He’s available. That’s important. It’s important to be available in a team sport.”
In Washington, coach Ron Rivera has tried to appeal to his players by pointing out that his cancer bout from 2020 puts him at greater risk of a serious outcome with COVID. So far, not so good.
So here’s what’s going to happen. Personnel decisions will be made based on vaccine status. Any close question involving two players at the same position will go to the player who is vaccinated. How can it not? Look at Zimmer’s quotes. All things relatively equal, he’ll take the guy who has made the commitment to being available to his team.
Some players will remain untouchable. The Vikings, for example, won’t cut Kirk Cousins; his massive salary and cap number allow him to do the not-team-friendly thing without consequence. But some players who think they’re untouchable could be getting a rude awakening.
Players may not like it. Some may file grievances. Teams ultimately won’t care. (That said, it will be smart to not create a clear link verbally or in writing between roster decisions and vaccine status.)
Still, it’s hard not to wonder whether fear of getting released will move the needle for players who flatly refuse to get jabbed. If feelings regarding this issue have already become so hardened that men wired to do whatever a coach tells them to do won’t do this, they may not care about losing their livelihood over it.
For the coaches and teams (and league), they simply want the players to get vaccinated. It will be very interesting to see how many recognizable names get released over the issue as teams maximize vaccination rates — and whether those players quickly find employment elsewhere or instead learn that the league has decided collectively to turn its back on them.
That would be collusion. That could set the stage for a major lawsuit. It’s becoming more and more clear that the league and its teams simply don’t care.