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The NFL Warns Teams Will Forfeit Games And Players Won't Be Paid In COVID Outbreaks

The Washington Football Team during a June practice. The team was one of the last in the league to reach a 50% vaccination threshold among its players.
Luis M. Alvarez
The Washington Football Team during a June practice. The team was one of the last in the league to reach a 50% vaccination threshold among its players.

In a major escalation of pressure on NFL teams to vaccinate as many players as possible before the start of this fall's season, the NFL says that teams will forfeit and be slapped with a loss if a game is cancelled because of a COVID-19 outbreak among their unvaccinated players — and neither team's players will be paid.

The new policy, which could potentially affect playoff seedings, was communicated in a 10-page memo to the league's 32 teams that was first reported by Tom Pelissero of NFL Network.

"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," states the introduction to the memo, which goes on to outline a variety of pandemic-related health provisions and policies.

The memo comes as some NFL teams have struggled to vaccinate a majority of their players.

Though all 32 teams now have at least 50% of their players vaccinated, two teams — the Washington Football Team and the Indianapolis Colts — only reached that benchmark in the last week, according to the Associated Press.

By contrast, the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints were the first two teams to hit an 85% threshold and did so by mid-June.

"We know that vaccines are safe and effective and are the best step anyone can take to be safe from the coronavirus," the memo says.

The new policies indicate the league is taking a more aggressive stance than it did last season. Though the NFL avoided cancellations in 2020, more than a dozen games were postponed, some by weeks, due to outbreaks among players.

The NFL schedule has little wiggle room. Over the course of 18 weeks, teams must play 17 games, leaving little flexibility for rescheduling once requirements for travel time and adequate rest between games are factored in.

Postponements in 2020 required complicated reshuffling of schedules and bye weeks, and frequently shortened or lengthened time between games, occasionally pitting a team on short rest against a team coming off of two weeks away.

"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 reads.

The policy also places any burdens, competitive or financial, caused by the postponement or cancellation of a game onto the team whose outbreak caused it, addressing a frequent complaint from 2020 from teams whose schedules were rearranged to accommodate the postponements of games caused by other teams' outbreaks.

Though the cancellation policy is most dramatic, the league's announcement includes other measures to pressure teams into achieving higher vaccination rates.

Teams with outbreaks among unvaccinated players will be at risk of fines. The league will only cover testing costs up to a point, after which clubs are responsible. Outbreaks among vaccinated players or personnel will be treated less harshly.

The majority of NFL players have received at least one shot of the vaccine, and many — including star quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson — have publicly shared their vaccination status and encouraged fans to seek a shot.

Roughly a quarter of players have not yet received a dose, according to the memo, and some questioned the new policy Thursday.

"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," Arizona Cardinals star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins wrote in a tweet he has since deleted. He later tweeted, simply, "Freedom?"

Two positive test results among NFL players were announced Thursday. New York Giants wide receiver Kadarius Toney and Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Jake Luton were placed on the COVID-19 list by their respective teams.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
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