Pro sports’ requirement of vaccine mandate helping move the needle for the hesitant

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Wednesday as a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ. We’re revisiting it today for our Sunday Read series.

Finally, every one of 13 positive COVID-19 cases among Edmonton Elks players has been resolved, and, according to the CFL’s website, the team heads back to practice on Thursday. It’s been two weeks since their last full-squad training session because team activities were suspended after an outbreak that followed a road game against the B.C. Lions.

From there, it’s a dense weekend of preparation, then their annual Labour Day clash with the Calgary Stampeders. Edmonton figures to have everyone back — except Jacob Ruby, the offensive lineman cut Tuesday afternoon for violating COVID-19 protocols.

The team and league aren’t releasing details of the rule Ruby broke, leaving the public to wonder how and why a player on a team trying to extinguish an outbreak would gamble with his employment. It’s a disappointing reminder that we’re still living in a pandemic and need to take COVID-19 as seriously as we do injuries.

But beyond Edmonton, we see some encouraging developments.

The Elks’ outbreak has been the only one since CFL teams opened training camps in July, and when the regular season kicked off the league reported that nearly 80 per cent of players had received at least one vaccine dose. As of last week, 93 per cent of NFL players were at least partially vaccinated. 

WATCH | Bring It In: On mandatory vaccine passports for fans:

Discussing mandatory vaccine passports as fans return to stadiums | Bring It In

13 days ago

With fans returning to stadiums across Canada, host Morgan Campbell discusses the enforcement of mandatory vaccination in stadiums across the country with panellists Meghan McPeak and Dave Zirin. 7:44

Predictably, vaccines are still triggering debate in the NFL, this time over whether the league should mandate shots for the lagging seven per cent. Those numbers have me feeling not quite optimistic, but the closest I’ve felt to it since football and baseball made the risky decision to return to action last summer.

As the pandemic drags on, we’re learning that breakthrough infections happen — except we should already have known that, since no current vaccine has a 100 per cent efficacy rate. The more painful, but equally obvious, lesson is that the unvaccinated face the biggest risk

But the 93 per cent figure from the NFL gives us hope that the league can complete the season without big outbreaks, ill players, and COVID-19 forcing postponements that knock the schedule sideways. And it signals to vaccine-hesitant regular people that the needle won’t hurt. If NFL players can conquer their apprehension about new medications, so can everyone else … maybe.

Of course, we mostly hear from the seven per cent, a loud minority of people to whom we in the media give megaphones, then allow to influence coverage. Some, like Buffalo Bills receiver Cole Beasley, say they’re too brave to get vaccinated. Others, like Montez Sweat of the Washington Football Team, claim to need more information, even though every club’s medical staff is eager to answer vaccine questions. 

And there are people like Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys, who said his vaccine status is privileged information, as if his health doesn’t affect incomes beyond his own. Teammates, ownership, broadcasters — they’re all invested in knowing whether Prescott can play, and how vulnerable he is to a bug that could sideline a dozen people at once.

I won’t quote those players on vaccines, because misinformation doesn’t need another loudspeaker, and because, by now, their objections are well known. The numbers tell us vaccine opposition among NFL players gets amplified out of proportion to its popularity.

Buffalo Bills receiver Cole Beasley has strongly argued against the vaccine, saying he’s “not anti- or pro-vax. I’m pro choice.” (Associated Press)

Incentives and consequences

The bigger point is that the league’s COVID-19 protocols — a mixture of incentives and consequences — likely helped nudge the hesitant off the fence. If an unvaccinated player causes an outbreak that forces a game cancellation, the new guidelines said, that player’s team would forfeit. Where vaccinated players undergo weekly COVID-19 tests, unvaccinated players get screened daily. Vaccination also relaxes quarantine and masking rules, compared with the strict guidelines their unvaccinated co-workers face.

Those measures didn’t force unwilling players to get jabbed as much as they dared people to back up their anti-vaccine talk. Opposing a vaccine, after all, implies that you have a better way to avoid contracting a highly infectious disease. If your strategy really does outperform Pfizer and Moderna, then why worry about being the unvaccinated person who starts the outbreak that costs your team a game? 

Of course, this discussion skirts the third rail of current discourse — politics. In Ontario, anti-vaccine protesters have targeted education minister Stephen Lecce. And in the US, Democrats are more likely to be vaccinated, while anchors on Fox News, which plays to a Republican base, tell viewers to skip vaccines in favour of medicine designed to kill parasites in livestock.

Amid the political bickering, Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin offered a football-focused reason for getting the vaccine.

“Not being one of the [85 per cent vaccinated teams] says there’s other things to a great number of people on this team that are more important than winning championships, and that makes me worried,” Irvin told a radio show in July.

Most CFL and NFL players agree with Irvin, as the numbers attest.

Crucially for some, a jab is a job requirement.

Quarterback Cam Newton, who is not vaccinated, is out of a job after violating the New England Patriots’ COVID-19 policy. (Associated Press)

Newton not vaccinated

Cam Newton entered training camp as New England’s top quarterback, but faced intense competition from first-round draft pick Mac Jones. Newton, who isn’t vaccinated, missed five days of practice when an unspecified run-in with COVID-19 protocol sidelined him, and his absence might have helped Jones grow into the first-stringer’s role. On Tuesday the Patriots named Jones their starter and made Newton a free agent.

With or without the vaccine, Newton will land another job. His body of work — a three-time Pro Bowler and the 2015 MVP — dictates that some team will gamble on him. 

But lesser players know they don’t have that flexibility. If you’re an NFL hopeful, teams need to know you can play, in that you can run, catch, and execute assignments. And they need to know you can play, in that you won’t spend weeks in COVID-19 protocol, or the hospital, and that you won’t start the outbreak that costs them a game. A vaccine is the simplest way to ease that concern.

In the stands, vaccine mandates are becoming the norm. In Canada, most pro teams and organizations are requiring some combination of vaccine doses and negative tests from audience members. Until this pandemic ends, it looks like up-to-date vaccines will become part of the price of admission. And on the field they’re set to become part of every prospect’s resumé, just like game film and exaggerated 40-yard-dash times. 

It’s less about controlling people than about controlling variables. Even with testing and vaccine uptake, COVID-19 finds opportunities to spread; witness the outbreaks in Edmonton and in Nashville with the Tennessee Titans. A fast-spreading, potentially deadly disease is as bad for business as it is for your favourite team’s performance and your favourite player’s health.

Those facts are so self-evident that they shouldn’t need mentioning, but some players and civilians insist on protesting against them.

Everybody else, quietly, has figured it out. If you don’t believe me, check with the 93 per cent.

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