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NFL, Skeptical Players Face COVID Vaccine Decision

Montez Sweat. Credit: Abdullah Yusuf/All-Pro Reels Photography/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Montez Sweat. Credit: Abdullah Yusuf/All-Pro Reels Photography/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The sports world is starting to resemble the scene in the movie “The Wiz,” after Evilene, the Wicked Witch of the West, is killed. There may not be singing and dancing, but it does feel like a brand new day.

Fans are returning in full force to stadiums and arenas around the country for the first time since the pandemic began 15 months ago,

NBA and NHL teams are out of their respective bubbles and back on home courts and home ice for their respective postseasons.

There were over 100,000 spectators in Indiana the day before Memorial Day for the Indianapolis 500 and Bill Murray personally welcomed back Cubs fans to Wrigley Field over the weekend.

We’re still waiting for throngs of football fans to return to stadiums this September, but that will come. There’s too much money to be made for the NFL not to dive face first into the pool.

While all the other leagues and organizations played shortened schedules and put the welfare of its personnel at the forefront – or at least appeared to – the NFL went, as the popular phrase of the day goes, all gas and no brakes.

All totaled, the league administered nearly 1 million tests at a cost of $100 million. Only 726 of those tests came back positive. Five games were postponed and 10 others were rescheduled, but in the end, not a single contest was canceled.

The NFL underwent an exhaustive protocol to keep the money machine rolling, and it worked. So, with just a few weeks before training camps open and three months to go before the start of the season, what does the league do for an encore in 2021?

One thing that it won’t do, apparently, is require the players to be vaccinated.

While at least 85 percent of the coaches and staff of all 32 teams have been vaccinated, there is still sizable reluctance within the ranks of players to getting a shot.

The NFL has declined to make vaccines mandatory, though it is allowing players who have been vaccinated to avoid daily testing.

Vaccinated players will have the run of team facilities without having to be masked, while unvaccinated players will have to be masked and undergo daily tests.

Even with those incentives and ongoing threats of variants, there’s still resistance.

For instance, last week Carolina quarterback Sam Darnold and Washington defensive end Montez Sweat declared their ignorance, bordering on indifference to receiving a vaccine.

Sweat, who will be starting his third season, took his obliviousness to another level, offering this ditty: “I haven’t caught COVID yet, so I don’t see me treating COVID until I actually get COVID."

The NFL’s aggressive passivity regarding vaccines stands in stark contrast to its vigilance, albeit late, on head trauma, where players are routinely educated on correct procedure and taken off the field when they don’t follow it.

The league is seeking to educate players on vaccine policy and that’s good. But it has to take the next step and remove players from play who don’t get the message, a message that could save lives, including their own.

And that’s how I see it for this week.

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Twitter: @SportsAtLarge

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.