NFL COVID Rules Lead Teams to Pretend Vaccination Isn’t a Consideration

  • NFL teams are making final roster cuts, and it seems impossible to ignore COVID vaccination status.
  • But league rules say coaches can’t consider vaccination in those decisions.
  • So coaches like Urban Meyer and Bill Belichick have found themselves in tough spots when explaining their choices.

On Tuesday, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer accidentally said the quiet part loud.

Talking to reporters about his team’s roster cuts, Meyer stated what should be obvious to anyone following the NFL as its second COVID season approaches: that a player’s vaccination status was a factor in determining the 53 who would make the team’s roster.

“Everyone was considered,” Meyer said. “[Vaccination status] was part of the production: ‘Let’s start talking about this, and also is he vaccinated or not?’ Can I say that that was a decision maker? It was certainly in consideration.”

Meyer’s admission was not surprising. The COVID protocols the NFL adopted this year are vastly different for vaccinated and unvaccinated players: The former do not have to isolate if they come into contact with somebody who tests positive for COVID-19, whereas anyone unvaccinated must quarantine for five days. The intention is to incentivize players to get vaccinated by making life difficult for those who choose not to.

Given the importance of player availability in the NFL, these protocols make it all but impossible for a coach not to consider vaccination status in roster decisions.

But according to Pro Football Talk, the “agreed rules of the league and the union prevent teams from considering vaccination status.” In response to Meyer’s comments, the NFL Players Association told Pro Football Talk that it would be opening an investigation.

The Jaguars quickly backtracked, saying in a statement that while no player was released due to his decision about the vaccine, “availability is one of many factors taken into account when making roster decisions.”

Meyer is in his first year in the NFL. Compare his comments to the approach that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick took when picking his quarterback. 

According to some reports, Cam Newton’s unvaccinated status played a role in the team’s surprising decision to cut him and put rookie Mac Jones in the starting role instead.

Pro Football Network’s Adam Beasley said on Twitter that Newton’s release was the result of at least three factors: “Mac Jones’ emergence, Newton’s vaccination stance (which caused a bit of a stir behind the scenes), and Cam’s uninspiring performance this summer.”

Just a week before Newton’s release, the Patriots got first-hand experience of the added challenges that come with rostering an unvaccinated player. Newton missed three days of Patriots practice due to what the team called a “misunderstanding” of COVID protocols while he was traveling for an approved medical appointment. Newton’s absence then gave Jones more time to shine with the team. Clearly, the Patriots liked what they saw.

When Belichick spoke with reporters after Newton’s release, though, he pushed back against the suggestion that the move was related to Newton’s unvaccinated status.

“No. Look, you guys keep talking about that,” Belichick told reporters. “I would just point out that I don’t know what the number is, but the number of players, coaches, and staff members that have been infected by COVID in this training camp — who have been vaccinated — is a pretty high number. So I wouldn’t lose sight of that.”

Belichick and Meyer may have communicated their stances differently to the press, but it’s hard to imagine they  used vastly different logic when making their roster decisions. NFL coaches obsess over every minute detail. Given that the COVID protocols mean an unvaccinated player could miss a week just by being in a room with the wrong person, it’s absurd to think vaccination status wouldn’t be a factor as coaches finalize their lists.

That’s not to say it’s the only factor — according to ESPN’s Jeff Darlington, Jacksonville will enter the season as one of the five teams with the most unvaccinated players, and 23 of the 24 players the Jaguars cut on Tuesday were vaccinated.

Vaccination just now has to be on the list of the many factors NFL coaches consider when finalizing their rosters, the same way they might consider a player’s injury history, speed, or arm talent.

The current NFL rules, though, force coaches and general managers to talk around these vaccination questions in public. Meyer slipped, spoke plainly, and stated the obvious, while Belichick successfully avoided a snake pit.

Other league leaders will likely take notice and thread a fine needle in their messaging: They’ll say vaccination status was not a factor in roster decisions, but availability was.

It’s a distinction without a difference.

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