The number of NFL players in the COVID-19 vaccination process has reached 80%, with nine teams having 90% or more of their players in that category.
Dr. Allen Sills, the league's medical director, said Friday that nearly all Tier 1 and Tier 2 team employees — those who deal directly with players — have been vaccinated. Five teams are at less than 70% of players who have either received one vaccination shot or both. He is optimistic the number of vaccinated players will continue to rise as training camps open.
“I think we are off to an excellent start,” Sills said. “Those numbers are much higher than what we're seeing in society as a whole. There has been a lot of movement in that area. As you see players coming to training camp, you will see more players beginning that process (of vaccination).”
Sills cited teams having strong advocates for vaccination among players and coaches, as well as the educational materials available.
“I think that has influenced a lot of players,” he said. "I think we are still seeing a lot of positive momentum. Numbers are changing on a day-by-day basis and I think we'll be seeing them day by day going up.
"What matters is that individuals have the most accurate information. Let’s not get information from Instagram or Facebook posts. Let’s try to hear from the most reputable professionals. You don’t shout anyone into belief here — there have to be thoughtful conversations. What we can do is provide the facts and make sure the entirety of the medical facts are presented."
On Thursday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to the 32 teams warning that forfeited regular-season games could occur for a COVID-19 outbreak caused by nonvaccinated players.
Dawn Aponte, the league's chief football administrative officer, reiterated that games will not be postponed to avoid roster issues because of the flexibility built in: COVID-19 replacement players; expanded practice squads to 16 players; a three-week minimum stay on injured reserve instead of six weeks; no limit on activating players from IR.
That means 272 games on time within 18 weeks “safely and responsibly,” she said.
“Flexible and adaptable will continue to be key,” Aponte added, noting that Goodell's memo was vetted by people in a variety of NFL roles. “We are committed to playing a full season as scheduled. There is the no-play/no-pay provision (from 2020), which has been agreed to with the players' association and will carry into this season.”
“Health and science truly is what drives and guides these decisions," she added. “And I think we illustrated that last season and will continue to do so. I think we know a lot more this year ... the biggest difference is a vaccination is available.”
Minnesota has an assistant, Rick Dennison, who is not vaccinated. After ESPN reported that Dennison has been ousted from his role as offensive line coach and run game coordinator, the Vikings released a statement confirming they were in discussions with him regarding league protocols for training camp and preseason games. As of Friday afternoon, Dennison remained a team employee.
“At this time, coach Dennison does not have an exemption to the vaccination requirements of those protocols. We will adhere to the requirements of the protocols and of applicable law," the Vikings said in their statement.
Said Peter Schaffer, Dennison's agent: “Rick is 100% committed to and invested in being the best football coach he can be for the Vikings with the singular focus of winning the Super Bowl this year."
Kansas City is one team well above the threshold of 85% vaccinated players.
“There’s six teams that are over 90%, so we’re glad to be in that area there,” coach Andy Reid said. “We’re one of the teams where the players have really challenged themselves to get things done and take care of business.”
The Chiefs are a prime example of what Sills discussed: NFL vaccinations outpacing those in the community. For Missouri, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 40.8% of the population is fully vaccinated. In Buchanan County where the Chiefs train in northwest Missouri, that number drops to 19.34%.
The league has said that determining who makes the roster can't involve whether a player is vaccinated. Policing such roster moves would be difficult, but Aponte dismissed any conspiracy theories.
“Cutting players is for their performance,” she said. “And I don’t think clubs will — I can’t stand in their shoes — but I think there are protocols that have been put in place ... that are not restricting their ability to perform. I don’t see the two tying together.”
Still, it is clear the league and the players' union are strongly advocating vaccinations with every move they make.
"No one is trying to be punitive or anything like that," Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said. “Simply, if your choice is not to get vaccinated, it’s going to be a much more difficult season.”
AP Sports Writer Mike Marot in Indianapolis contributed.
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