Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

The NFL isn’t feeling more COVID disruptions; outbreaks among the unvaccinated could mean forfeits

Commissioner Roger Goodell unveils strong vaccine incentives; players whose teams have to forfeit won't be paid.

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie (right) and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell talk before the game against the Giants at MetLife Stadium November 6, 2016. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie (right) and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell talk before the game against the Giants at MetLife Stadium November 6, 2016. CLEM MURRAY / Staff PhotographerRead moreclem murray

COVID-19 vaccination just became much less of a “personal choice” for players during the NFL’s 2021 season.

Commissioner Roger Goodell told teams Thursday in a memo that if a game is postponed and can’t be rescheduled because of a COVID outbreak among unvaccinated players on one team’s roster, that team will forfeit, and no players from either team will be paid for that week. Goodell’s memo also stipulated that the team with the outbreak will be responsible for all financial losses incurred, and could be subject to discipline from the commissioner.

Should a postponement that can’t be rescheduled occur because of an outbreak among vaccinated players, it would be viewed less harshly, according to the memo, obtained by the NFL Network.

“If a club cannot play due to a COVID spike in vaccinated individuals, we will attempt to minimize the competitive and economic burden on both participating teams,” the memo said.

“Both the CDC and major hospital systems throughout the country have reported that 97% or more of the new cases and virtually all hospitalizations are seen in unvaccinated individuals,” the memo said. “While there have been ‘breakthrough’ infections — cases where a vaccinated individual has been infected — those cases tend to be mild and people recover from the infection relatively quickly.”

Therefore, the league has decided to let vaccinated players who test positive return to duty after two negative tests, at least 24 hours apart, while someone who is not vaccinated and tests positive still has to isolate for 10 days, as was the case in 2020. Vaccinated players who come in contact with someone who tests positive do not have to quarantine; unvaccinated players in such situations must quarantine for five days.

The NFL Network reported that 14 of the league’s 32 teams currently meet the league’s 85% full-vaccination threshold for relaxed COVID protocols, and that more than 78% of players have gotten at least one dose of vaccine. The Eagles declined to comment on their vaccination status, or on Goodell’s memo. No prominent Eagles have spoken out against vaccination.

Recently, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley has been the face of player vaccine resistance, through a series of tweets, but after Thursday’s memo became public, star Arizona Cardinals wideout DeAndre Hopkins joined the fray.

“Never thought I would say this, 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 tweeted. The tweet was deleted within 20 minutes of its posting. Hopkins replaced it with a tweet that read: “Freedom?”

Meanwhile, the Giants announced that their first-round rookie wideout, Kadarius Toney, was being placed on the league’s reserve/COVID-19 list, and must go through protocols to return.

The memo’s forfeit threat looks bold, but in 2020, there weren’t any postponed games that could not be rescheduled, as the league went to great lengths to get every game played and end the season on time. A Steelers-Ravens game went through three postponements, but it was played.

Thursday’s memo stressed that the NFL does not anticipate adding a 19th week to the 18-week, 17-game schedule — this is the first year with a 17th game — to accommodate any postponed games that don’t fit into the 18-week framework. Of course, saying you don’t anticipate doing something is different from saying you absolutely won’t do it.

Still, the tone of the memo was unmistakable — the league wants certainty for teams, fans and advertisers. It doesn’t want to refund any more TV ad money because a Sunday prime-time game had to be played on a Tuesday. Though Goodell left the door open for postponements under some circumstances, he indicated that getting your game rescheduled because of an outbreak caused by your players not getting vaccinated won’t be automatic.

“Every club is obligated under the Constitution and Bylaws to have its team ready to play at the scheduled time and place. A failure to do so is deemed conduct detrimental. There is no right to postpone a game,” the memo said.