As NFL coaches air out frustration with vaccination rates, COVID-19 remains huge X-factor for teams

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Carlos Hyde is on the fence. The veteran NFL running back still hasn’t been vaccinated for COVID-19.

“I’m in-between,” Hyde told USA TODAY Sports after Friday’s training camp practice with the Jacksonville Jaguars. “The way things are going, I’m definitely leaning toward getting vaccinated.”

Good for him. Hyde, 30, is in what you could call the “NFL’s resistance class” — players who have either yet to determine whether they will be vaccinated or are adamant that they won’t get a shot until further notice, if ever.

As of Thursday, according to figures cited by NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, 87.9% of players league-wide had taken at least one vaccination shot, while 19 of the 32 teams had a vaccination rate of at least 90%. Seven teams report a vaccination rate of 95% or better.

The NFL rates are way, way better than society at large, with roughly half the U.S. population fully vaccinated for the coronavirus that has cost the lives of more than 600,000 Americans.

Yet it’s the relatively small percentage of unvaccinated NFL players that raises the anxiety level for league officials, coaches and others. After surviving the twists, protocols and risks in completing the 2020 season during a pandemic, the NFL knows what looms as another season approaches while COVID-19 cases rise again with the emergence of the Delta variant.

“We live in the hottest part of the frickin’ country in Florida for the Delta variant,” Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians told USA TODAY Sports following an early week practice in Tampa. “And who knows what the next variant is going to be? We’ve got to be smart. We are not normal.”

Arians, the NFL’s most candid coach, has told his players as much. While teams can’t go the route that some government agencies and private businesses have and require that players get vaccinated in order to keep their jobs, they can preach common sense and express expectations.

Last season, before vaccinations were developed and then widely distributed — when the best defense against COVID-19 involved masks, social distancing and washing hands — the Bucs had just three COVID-19 cases as they marched to a Super Bowl crown. Arians was encouraged that, as camp opened last weekend, his team was close to 85% vaccinated.

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“Getting 25-year-old guys to go home, come to work, go home, for an entire season, that was hard,” Arians reflected. “Our guys made that commitment. Now they talk about the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated. It’s your decision. Just make a commitment to your team. Commit to each other.”

Maybe the case of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who tested positive for COVID-19 last season and is currently sidelined again after contracting the virus, will convince unvaccinated players to change their positions. In any event, it’s a universal issue across the league as training camps ramp up — even for teams with high vaccination rates — with the lessons from 2020 in tow.

The situation that surfaced on Saturday with the Minnesota Vikings — after rookie quarterback Kellen Mond tested positive for COVID-19, franchise QB Kirk Cousins and backup Nate Stanley were ruled out of the evening practice, deemed as “close contacts” — was reminiscent of the case last season with the Denver Broncos. In that situation, practice squad receiver Kendall Hinton was elevated to play quarterback in a game with less than a day’s notice.

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Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer takes the field at training camp at TCO Performance Center.

And it’s fueling controversy. JC Tretter, the Cleveland Browns center and president of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), has accused the NFL of trying to “shame” unvaccinated players as some teams identify unvaccinated and vaccinated players by color-coded wristbands. On Saturday, former Kansas City Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman tweeted that the wristbands were comparable to racial segregation.

And Tretter, like others, is concerned that the stage is set for divided locker rooms. Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin recently told The Fort Worth Star-Telegram that players who aren’t vaccinated are not truly committed to winning a championship. Meanwhile, Washington coach Ron Rivera fretted that he is “beyond frustrated” by his team’s vaccination rate near the bottom of the league.

Among the NFL guidelines this season, unvaccinated players must wear masks when not on the field — the league will fine unvaccinated players $14,000 if they are caught not wearing a mask around the team’s complex — and can’t eat in the team’s cafeteria. While vaccinated players much pass a COVID-19 test every 14 days, unvaccinated players must submit to daily testing.

“It is what it is,” Bucs safety Mike Edwards told reporters.

Edwards, who wore a yellow wristband and a mask that didn’t cover his nose, refused to elaborate. Asked whether he will change his mind about getting vaccinated, Edwards said, “I don’t know. We’ll see.”

Meanwhile, other Bucs, including tight end Rob Gronkowski, talked enthusiastically about their vaccinations and the protocols.

“If our team is 85% vaccinated, we can just walk around like we’re normal,” Gronkowski told USA TODAY Sports. “Just eating in the cafeteria, having team meetings indoors and walking around without a mask, it feels good. I hope the rules stay like this and it doesn’t affect us too much. No outbreaks or anything. We’re hoping for the best.”

Carolina Panthers linebacker Denzel Perryman is unconvinced that vaccinations are the best method of defense — despite evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that vaccinated people are less likely to contract the virus.

According to the CDC, COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective, but they’re not 100% effective. That means a small percentage of people who are fully vaccinated will still get COVID-19 if exposed to the virus that causes it, the CDC says. However vaccinated people who have breakthrough infections are much less likely to get severely sick or die. The CDC is working with state and local health departments to identify breakthrough cases that result in hospitalization or death. As of July 12, of the more than 159 million fully vaccinated people in the U.S. about 5,500 were reported hospitalized or died from COVID-19.

“Nothing against it,” Perryman told reporters on Friday. “I mean, I know people that got the vaccination and still caught COVID, so to me it’s like, ‘What’s the point?’ “

In an NFL context, the point includes competitive disadvantages. The league has maintained that rather than shuffle the schedule this season in the manner like last year, forfeits will become part of the equation if teams are stricken by outbreaks.

Hyde suggested that part of his decision-making process involves the team — at work and at home.

“The team who stays COVID-free the best will have the best chance of winning,” Hyde suspects. “I want to help the team, but I want to protect my family, protect myself. Fortunately, I haven’t caught COVID.”

And he can keep score on a daily basis.

Career-threatening stance?

Mindful that Colin Kaepernick never landed another NFL job after launching a protest movement in 2016 to bring attention to police brutality and social injustices that victimize Black people and other groups, former offensive line coach Eugene Chung certainly weighed the possible implications of his decision to speak out about a perceived bias against Asian-Americans.

Chung said recently that during an interview with an unnamed team, he was told that Asian-Americans were not the “right kind of minority” to help with his quest of landing a job. In early July, the NFL maintained that after investigating the matter, it found no evidence to support Chung’s claim.

Early last week, Chung stuck with his initial assertion during a Zoom call with a handful of reporters. He also maintained that he chose to speak out as a matter of principle — despite possible backlash and any threats to landing another job.

“I want to make sure no one else has to deal with what I’ve experienced over several years,” Chung said on the call.

Chung said the feedback he’s received from coaches not only in the NFL, but on the high school and college levels and internationally, has proved to him that he made the proper decision.

“Ever since this has been brought to light, so many people have reached out,” Chung said, “thanking me for taking a risk.”

It’s a shame that race even came up as part of the discussion in interviewing for a job. Then again, the NFL has a Rooney Rule for a reason. Also disturbing is that Chung still hasn’t had the meeting he’s requested with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss the matter.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL coaches air out frustrations on COVID-19 vaccination rates


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