Few businesses need widespread vaccine uptake to function properly as much as sports leagues do. In a typical American office, you can at least theoretically separate unvaccinated employees from vaccinated ones, though it’s not entirely clear why you’d want to. (The military, the federal government, Disney, Google, and Facebook sure aren’t going that route.) But sports leagues’ employees often can’t wear masks, and they absolutely cannot social distance; by definition, the job requires being up close and personal with people (quarterbacks, power forwards) who work in entirely different parts of the country as well as engaging in relentless travel. Unless you’re planning on tackling Herb from accounting the next time you see him, there’s no question that your job needs vaccines less than, say, the NBA does.
But on the whole, those leagues have not been so quick on the vaccine draw. In lieu of a mandate, Major League Baseball has attempted to incentivize, rather than taking a heavier hand. MLB is allowing vaccinated players far more privileges than their unvaccinated counterparts have and is easing team-wide restrictions when 85 percent of a particular squad has gotten shots. This has not stopped some outbreaks, most notably among the Yankees: The team’s big trade-deadline acquisition, Anthony Rizzo, refused to get a vaccine and was immediately put on the injured list after contracting COVID. It has also not stopped players like the Twins’ Andrelton Simmons and the Padres’ Jake Arrieta from spreading vaccine disinformation (Arrieta also nicely mocked a reporter for asking a question with a mask on). Meanwhile, the NBA announced that 90 percent of its players were vaccinated but has not required shots for everyone, though some teams have. The NHL has announced a vaccine mandate for all employees but is still negotiating with the players association about all players needing one. That’s actually a big issue for these leagues: In many cases, they cannot make a unilateral vaccine decision; they have to negotiate such matters with the union, which, for quite understandable reasons, is hesitant to just hand over big decisions to the leagues and team owners.
But if you are one of the angry vaccinated who is ready to see the unvaccinated punished (or at least deprived and/or inconvenienced) in a way that doesn’t end with them on a ventilator, you can take heart: Leagues are starting to get tougher.
The NHL is mulling simply not paying players for the games they have to miss because of COVID. But the real, and surprising, mover on this has been the NFL, which has made life so difficult for its unvaccinated employees that coaches have been fired or reassigned because of their refusal to get the shot. This has not stopped some players from pushing back against the vaccine, but it is undeniable that the league’s restrictions on unvaccinated personnel — they’re unable to attend indoor meetings where they can’t social distance, they must undergo constant testing, and they are required to be masked when not on the field — have made incredible progress as the new season looms. At last count, on July 31, 88.5 percent of NFL players had received at least one shot, a number that has surely shot up as training camp has begun. (The Atlanta Falcons on Monday became the first team to reach 100 percent vaccination.) The NFL is a cruel, Darwinist sport that cuts players without mercy the second they cannot maximize their productivity for a team; the choice between a vaccinated player who is trying to maximize his playing time versus an unvaccinated one who is more likely to sit out a few games is no choice at all. At least the league’s cold-blooded treatment of its players carries a tiny societal positive.
But this is just the start. The big move the NFL is expected to make is to force teams with COVID outbreaks to forfeit games, rather than simply postponing them as they did last season. Part of the reasoning behind this comes down to the calendar: There just isn’t enough flexibility with the new 18-week schedule to slot in games later in the year. If your team can’t field enough players, which happened several times last year and is already happening in high-school football — my local team here in Georgia recently had a game postponed because of a COVID outbreak — you lose. In the cutthroat world of the NFL, teams will drop anyone in a half a second if his refusal to get a vaccine costs them a game. There are still players, like Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson and Buffalo’s Cole Beasley, who are holding out on vaccines, but the NFL is doing everything it can to make the pressure overwhelming. By midseason, I have no doubt it will be.
College football is going a similar route. There has been no official announcement yet, but it is widely assumed that every major conference will force teams who have outbreaks to forfeit. Teams that play for universities with vaccine mandates have a natural advantage here, but no less a figure than legendary Alabama coach Nick Saban has said, “[Players] have a competitive decision to make on how it impacts their ability to play in games because with the vaccine you probably have a better chance. Without it, you have a bigger chance that something could happen that may keep you from being on the field, which doesn’t enhance your personal development. And how does it affect the team if you bring it to the team?” That’s coach-speak for “Get your ass vaccinated.” Currently, the Alabama football team has a 95 percent vaccination rate, with Saban saying he “expects” it to reach 100 percent. The state they play for: 35.18 percent. Whatever the team is doing, it’s working — mandate or not.
Still, all this is hardly the extent of what leagues could be doing to pull their weight during this disorienting, scary stage of the pandemic. The most useful thing they could do is what restaurants, music venues, and some office buildings are doing across the country: requiring proof of vaccination for all fans in attendance. Only one NFL team, the New Orleans Saints, will make fans show vaccination cards or proof of a negative test, and they’re going that far only because the mayor has mandated it; many teams, including the New York Giants, have explicitly said they won’t do so. The NFL’s official policy has a “Fan Health Promise,” which makes all ticket holders “agree” to not attend a game if they’ve had a positive COVID test in the previous 14 days and haven’t been vaccinated. In the NHL, only the Winnipeg Jets are requiring vaccines for fans.
This is particularly frustrating to see in college football, which has a fan base heavily concentrated in the South. Not many policies in the South would make vaccination numbers shoot up faster than mandating vaccines at big venues across the region. Kyle Field, Texas A&M’s stadium, holds 102,733 fans; Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium holds 102,455. There are 102,077 at Alabama; there are 93,246 here in Athens, Georgia. It’s highly unlikely that the policy will be enacted. After all, none of those universities is requiring vaccinations for its students, let alone its football fans. The only top-tier team currently requiring fans to be vaccinated is Tulane, which falls under the same city policy as the Saints. But if teams — not only in college football but in the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL — truly wanted to make a difference, they would start treating their fans as they are starting, at last, to treat their players and employees: If you want to be a part of this, get your shot.