COOK: With NFL taking hard line, all eyes shift to league's vaccine holdouts

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris wears a yellow wristband during practice, indicating that he has not started or completed the COVID-19 vaccination process.

Najee Harris made headlines during the weekend at Steelers training camp even before he had his first carry in pads.

It was not a headline that he or the team welcomed.

Harris was photographed at practice wearing a yellow wristband, indicating that he has not started or completed the COVID-19 vaccination process. The NFL has ordered its teams to identify players who are not vaccinated, and the Steelers merely were following protocol with Harris' yellow wristband.

The league has a good reason for its mandate and is absolutely right for issuing it: Its revenue dropped from $16 billion in 2019 to $12 billion last year because of the pandemic, according to Sports Business Journal. It is so determined to do better financially this season that it is all but threatening players to get vaccinated. It is clear the teams will cut marginal players — Harris is safe because he's a No. 1 draft pick with stardom likely ahead of him — if they don't comply. The NFL feels so strongly about this that it's even is willing to ostracize unvaccinated players from their teammates. It is hoping the teammates turn up the pressure on the unvaccinated.

"We do not agree to the [wristbands] and think they are unnecessary," NFL Players Association president JC Tretter said in a statement Monday.

Apparently, the NFL doesn't care what the NFLPA thinks about this issue.

Nor should it.

Coaches have lost jobs, at least temporarily: Non-playing personnel — that includes coaches — are required to be vaccinated. Minnesota Vikings offensive line coach/run game coordinator Rick Dennison and New England Patriots co-offensive line coach Cole Popovich have lost their jobs — at least temporarily — because of the COVID issue.

More than 75 percent of the players have at least started the vaccination process. That number is believed to be much higher with the Steelers, even though Harris wasn't the only player wearing a yellow wrist band during the weekend. By all accounts, Mike Tomlin has been very persuasive when it comes to the vaccines. That's because he knows there is a competitive advantage involved.

Protocols from last season have been greatly eased for vaccinated players. They can eat in the team cafeteria, work out in unlimited numbers in the weight room and meet in-person with their coaches.

But unvaccinated players must follow the same protocols from a year ago. That means they can't attend meetings with their coaches and teammates. They have to do so virtually.

All league personnel are required to wear contact-tracing devices while at training camp.

Players and teams can be fined for violations of COVID protocols, same as last season.

The Delta variant: The NFL knows that even vaccinated players and staff members can test positive for the virus, primarily because of the Delta variant. ESPN reported Monday that four players and 13 staffers have tested positive since the camps opened despite being vaccinated. The Indianapolis Colts announced Monday that head coach Frank Reich tested positive, although he is asymptomatic.

Here's the difference between the way the NFL looks at positive tests among unvaccinated and vaccinated personnel:

An unvaccinated player who tests positive must isolate for at least 10 days. A vaccinated, asymptomatic player can return to the team after two negative tests that are at least 24 hours apart and does not have to isolate for the full 10 days.

Bottom line? The NFL believes a fully vaccinated player faces much less risk of COVID, at least less risk of becoming seriously ill. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 99.5% of COVID deaths over the past six months occurred in unvaccinated people, and 97% of the people entering hospitals were unvaccinated.

Clearly, the NFL believes a vaccinated player will get back in the lineup quicker if he does get the virus without his performance being negatively affected.

That's where the competitive advantage comes in.

The NFL sent out a memo last week telling its clubs that it will not extend the season if there is a COVID outbreak and will forfeit games instead. Players on both teams in a forfeited game won't be paid.

NFL applies pressure: It should be noted the league did not have to forfeit games last season despite major virus outbreaks among the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens. What the league hopes is that its pressure on the players to be vaccinated will prevent a repeat of the Steelers and Ravens having to play a game on a Wednesday afternoon at 3:40 p.m., as they did last season.

"The threat of missed game checks is matched by the threat of lost revenue to NFL owners, so we all have a vested interest in playing another complete season," Tretter wrote.

No, there won't be any forfeits this season. That is safe to say.

That doesn't mean the NFL's strong message to its players isn't as clear as it can be:

"Be a good teammate. Get vaccinated."