As the NFL approaches the 2021 season, the league informed clubs that it would not extend the season to accommodate a COVID-19 outbreak among unvaccinated players that causes a game cancellation.
NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported Thursday that the NFL sent a memo to its clubs stating that if a game cannot be rescheduled during the 18-week schedule due to a COVID-19 outbreak among unvaccinated players, the team with the outbreak will forfeit and be credited with a loss, per sources informed of the situation.
In addition, players on both teams will not be paid for the lost contest, and the team responsible for the cancelled game due to unvaccinated players will cover financial losses and be subject to potential discipline from the Commissioner’s office.
Last year, the NFL bent over backwards to rework the schedule on the fly as outbreaks occurred. Zero games were missed over 17 weeks.
In 2021, the NFL plans to play its 272-game slate over 18 weeks.
“We do not anticipate adding a ’19th week’ to accommodate games that cannot be rescheduled within the current 18 weeks of the regular season,” the memo stated in a highlighted portion.
It’s the clearest line the NFL has drawn to date and the most substantial incentive yet for owners, teams and coaches to pressure players to get vaccinated. The league has insisted it will not mandate vaccinations, but the restrictions in place for non-vaccinated players and potential penalties to teams make the NFL’s stance crystal clear.
Thursday’s memo underlines that in green. Money green.
“If a game is cancelled/postponed because a club cannot play due to a Covid spike among or resulting from its non-vaccinated players/staff, then the burden of the cancellation or delay will fall on the club experiencing the Covid infection,” the memo states. “We will seek to minimize the burden on the opposing club or clubs. 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.”
It’s the clearest language the league has used in delineating the difference between outbreaks among vaccinated individuals and those who elect not to be vaccinated.
NFL Network’s Judy Battista reported that with players beginning to report for camps, progress on vaccinations has increased. More than 78 percent of players league-wide have had at least one shot, and 14 clubs have at least 85 percent of players vaccinated. Pelissero reported that all 32 teams have at least a 50 percent vaccination rate among players.
“We’re pleased with those numbers, but we’re not satisfied. We want to see them continue to go up,” NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sills told Battista on Thursday’s NFL NOW. “Certainly those rates are well above what we’re seeing in the rest of society and certainly above the same age group as most of our players are. So a great head-start, more work to be done.”
According to Thursday’s memo, vaccinated players or staff who test positive and are asymptomatic can return to duty after two negative tests 24 hours apart. For non-vaccinated persons who test positive, the 2020 protocols remain in place, requiring a 10-day isolation.
In essence, the NFL is telling its clubs to up their efforts to convince players to get vaccinated. Otherwise, the burden of risk falls on the team should an outbreak occur.
Pelissero shared an NFLPA email sent to players Thursday night in which clubs were reminded that the “same basic rules” also applied last year, citing that players wouldn’t have been paid for games if there was a COVID-19 outbreak and all previously agreed upon joint protocols are effective, when followed as the 2020 season proved.
The NFLPA did note one small difference in that the NFL decided to impose additional penalties on teams which are responsible for an outbreak, should one occur, and the availability of vaccines.
The memo in full resides below:
This will summarize key operating principles relating to addressing the continuing Covid-19 threat for the 2021 season. We will review these principles and related matters on the 32-club call this evening. These principles are based on last season’s experience and follow discussions that we have had with a number of league committees, medical experts, outside advisors, and many of you. As we learned last year, we can play a full season if we maintain a firm commitment to adhering to our health and safety protocols and to making needed adjustments in response to changing conditions.
These operating principles are designed to allow us to play a full season in a safe and responsible way and address possible competitive or financial issues fairly. While there is no question that health conditions have improved from last year, we cannot be complacent or simply assume that we will be able to play without interruption – either due to Covid outbreaks among our clubs or outbreaks that occur within the larger community. These principles are intended to help inform decisions, recognizing that, as in 2020, we will need to remain flexible and adapt to possibly changing conditions.
• We will maintain our focus on health and safety, with the well-being of everyone associated with our game remaining our highest priority.
• Nearly all clubs have vaccinated 100 percent of their Tier 1 and 2 staffs. Clubs have put appropriate protocols in place for the relatively few staff who have not been vaccinated, consistent with the guidance given last April. As of today, more than 75 percent of players are in the process of being vaccinated, and more than half the clubs have vaccination rates greater than 80 percent of their players.