On Thursday, the NFL announced three-game suspensions of Buccaneers receiver Antonio Brown, Buccaneers safety Mike Edwards, and free-agent receiver John Franklin III. The man who first broke the story of fake vaccination cards in Tampa explains how the league concluded that this trio was misrepresenting their vaccination status.
According to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times, the NFL used Stroud’s original report from November 18 as the template for constructing its investigation.
On Wednesday, November 24, NFL investigators contacted Steven Ruiz, Brown’s former live-in chef who went public with the claim that Brown had secured and used a fake vaccination card after Brown allegedly failed to pay Ruiz’s bill. Offered an opportunity to have an attorney on the line before answering questions, Ruiz agreed to be interviewed “without hesitation” and then shared his story with the league. Ruiz told the investigators that Franklin sold Brown his fake card.
Brown’s defense fell apart when he told the league that he was vaccinated in Citrus County, which is located 80 miles north of Tampa. Beyond the fact that it made no sense to go that far when the Buccaneers were offering easy and convenient access to vaccines at the team facility, Brown insisted that he traveled to Citrus County without any teammates so that he wouldn’t be recognized. When the league learned that the cards tendered to the team by Edwards and Franklin came from Citrus County on the same day, the stories “unraveled” — especially since none of the three players had personal ties to Citrus County.
Meanwhile, Brown’s lawyer (who has said way too much about the situation, and we’ll have more to say about what he has said later) claimed that Brown secured his card at a drive-through facility. So he said that he drove 80 miles to a drive-through facility, on the same day that Edwards and Franklin were vaccinated in the same county, even though Brown went there alone. The league recognized that claim for the hogwash that it is.
Stroud also explains that NFL investigators separately attempted to verify the information on Brown’s vaccinated card but “ran into familiar roadblocks” regarding confidentiality, etc. Frankly, the “familiar roadblocks” that the league likes to cite ultimately may be a convenient excuse. A source who has been very involved with and knowledgeable regarding the enforcement of the 2021 COVID protocols has explained that players have signed all proper documents and waived all relevant rights, allowing the teams and/or the league to do whatever needs to be done to confirm the information contained on a vaccination card. And even if that isn’t enough in some states to allow the team or the league to verify vaccination status, nothing stops the league from telling players who claim to have been vaccinated off site that it’s up to them and their agents to obtain and present appropriate proof that the cards are real.
That’s an important point, because if the league is able to persuade outsiders that it can’t verify the vaccination information on its own, the league has cover for not making the calls necessary to confirm that the 20 percent of all vaccinated players who received their shots at a place other than team facilities did indeed submit a valid vaccination card. In this case, the proof fell into the league’s lap, starting with Ruiz’s public claim and ending with Brown’s nonsensical story imploding. It didn’t require much elbow grease to stumble into a finding that three fake cards had been submitted.
As to 31 other teams presenting the league with no specific leads as to any specific players who may have submitted fake cards, the league would have to roll up its sleeves and get to work. To date, there has been no inclination whatsoever that the league is willing to embrace this important effort to show that all players who are behaving as if they are vaccinated truly have been. Instead, the league continues to be content to accept the fact that a similarity in the rate of positive tests among the players vaccinated on site and off site means that there isn’t an issue with fake vaccination cards.
And that approach continues to make no logical sense.