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Fake Vaccine Cards Are A Real Problem For The NFL

Robyn Beck/Getty Images

The Falcons, Buccaneers, and Raiders claim to have reached 100 percent of players vaccinated against COVID-19, and of the NFL’s 32 teams, 27 report a 90 percent rate or higher. The latest report on the league’s vaccination rate as a whole is 93.5 percent. Despite the attention paid to the loudest holdouts, these are very good numbers. But can they be trusted? There’s good reason to believe some number of NFL players have used fake vaccine cards, and teams’ protocols aren’t designed to catch them.

Fake CDC cards, often ordered online, are big business and growing, and two NFL agents who work for different agencies told Defector that players they represent asked them for help getting a fake vaccine card. (Both agents declined to do so.) One of those agents said that his client asked him about getting a fake card because a teammate of his had used one. “He was like, ‘Oh well my teammate's got this fake card. Should I just do that?’” the agent said. “I'm like no! Just get vaccinated!” 

This player was interested in getting a fake because he had just been placed on the COVID-19 reserve list for being a close contact. Two days after the conversation with his agent, the player got COVID himself.

Based on what that agent learned from his conversation with this player and others similarly shut down as close contacts in 2021, he estimates that 10–15 percent of players have a fake vaccine card. “I think it is a lot more common than people realize,” he said. “Look, you're talking about the NFL. These guys do anything they can to fudge a weed test or a PED test.” 

A third NFL agent told Defector that he hadn’t directly heard of any players using fakes but assumed it was probably happening. We spoke in the morning and that same night, the agent texted me back with an update: “Was told by a player tonight that a big-name guy on his team has a fake card. Players know.”

Defector reached out to 18 NFL players to ask about fake cards, but just three were willing to talk. Players 1 and 2 got vaccinated at their team facilities, with the team medical staff there to witness their jabs in person. The third player said that he only just recently got the vaccine, and he set up his own appointment at a local grocery store’s pharmacy counter. His team didn’t know he was getting the vaccine until he sent his team’s trainer a photo of his CDC card after his appointment. He said, in theory, it would be possible for other players to use a fake card.

Player 2, who was vaccinated at his team’s facility, said he didn’t know of a specific player with a fake, but that talk of fake cards has been “going around, like people find all kinds of loopholes for all kinds of stuff.”

Even athletic trainers, the club employees specifically charged with tracking player vaccinations, admit that there could be fake vaccine cards in the NFL. “I have NO doubt it is possible,” texted one trainer. 

In mid-July, according to an NFL spokesperson, after hearing general news reports about the existence of fake vaccine cards, the league notified the NFLPA. The spokesperson said that the topic of fake vaccine cards was addressed on July 22 in one of the All-32 club video conference COVID meetings, with senior executives from each club, head coaches, general managers, and ICOs (infection control officers). "Clubs were instructed to carefully scrutinize the cards when presented as the use of a fake card risks the health and safety of the entire club, is a federal criminal crime and subjects the individual to league discipline," the spokesperson said. League officials also talked about fakes in the in-person presentations made to clubs and players at their facilities during training camp.

The league spokesperson added, "Any attempt by team personnel or players to use a forged or fake card would be reviewed under the personal conduct policy and subject the individual to discipline. In addition, it is a federal criminal offense. No club has reported any such activity during the verification process."

If the NFL actually intends to crack down on fake CDC cards, it’s got its work cut out. HIPAA, so often mis-cited by players to avoid talking about their own vaccination status, actually comes into play here. It prevents medical providers from disclosing health records, so if a player’s family doctor or nurse signed their vaccine card, that doctor would be prevented by HIPAA from giving that info to a team without the player’s consent. If a team has doubts about a player who got the jab at a local CVS, that pharmacist cannot answer questions about that player. 

An NFL spokesperson told Defector that the league instructed each club to check players’ cards, but left the details up to each individual team to handle. Defector talked to three different trainers with three different teams, and each said there’s been no additional instruction or training on how to verify player vaccinations beyond taking photos of the cards. 

“I haven't googled how to look for what gives away a fake vaccine card,” said a second NFL trainer. “I truly don’t know what the red flags are. I mean, they all look fairly normal. I am sure there are little nuances and little subtleties in fake ones but I haven't put in the time to try to investigate what those look like.” 

The second trainer said he’s only come across one card that gave him pause because it was a little crinkled and beat up. The trainers said they ask to see the physical card for each vaccinated player, and enter the numbers and dates into the electronic portal that stores player health information. “They must submit the physical card,” the third trainer said. “Not taking their word for it.” 

After the info is uploaded, the trainers said their work is done. 

“No other questions are asked,” the second trainer said. “I don't go fishing around either.” 

The NFL and NFLPA introduced the vaccine protocols during OTAs this spring, intentionally burdening unvaccinated players with more and stricter rules to follow and fines if they don’t. Because getting the vaccine was incentivized with relaxed protocol, a significant chunk of players got vaccinated during the summer break before training camp started.

“That was your biggest window of risk,” said an NFC executive who had not heard of any players using fake cards. “Because then the trainers lose track of them. Would I expect a player to show up today and say, ‘Oh, I got vaccinated last week, here's my [fake] card’? No. Could someone who went away June 10 and came back July 25, be like, ‘Oh yeah I got vaccinated while I was gone.’ Yeah, and it's pretty hard for your trainer to accuse them of lying. I don't know how that plays in a locker room.”

The second trainer estimated that 35 percent of the players on his team got vaccinated outside of the team facility and the team’s partnership with a local vaccine provider. The third trainer estimated that only two or three players on their team got vaccinated outside of the team facility without involvement from the training staff in setting up the appointment. 

Aside from requiring players to get vaccinated at team facilities, or with an NFL-certified witness present, there isn’t really a better option to verify vaccination status. Some companies that are requiring employees to be vaccinated have hired firms to outsource verification, but those services aren’t doing much beyond double-checking the information on a vaccine card and running a search through digital state databases, if extant—only seven states have one. 

The second NFL trainer said a member of his team’s training staff spent some time online trying to figure out if there was a database for searching vaccination records, and concluded it couldn’t be done. “When you get [vaccinated] everybody goes into some sort of centralized database, right?” the second trainer asked. “But I guess only the government has access to that, right?” 

I answered that I truly had no idea. My own vaccine card looks like it’s been chewed up by a dog and then used as a coaster for my morning cappuccino. Aside from my appointment record on my online Walgreens account, I have no idea where else to find a record of my own vaccination. I got the Moderna vaccine, and the best option for fact-checking I discovered when researching this story was to look up my vaccine batch number for the expiration date. This proves that the numbers are real and that this specific dose of the vaccine did in fact exist, but it doesn’t prove that it was actually shot into my arm. 

The first agent I spoke to said he’s heard of players procuring real CDC cards without actually getting vaccinated, which would thwart even the remedial fact-checking that teams are able to do. “They have gone to either friends and family who work in the medical field,” the agent said, “or they have gone to team doctors or trainers that have access to these cards and vaccine numbers, batch numbers, and got these phony cards.”

“Unfortunately, because the country has no verification or database, neither can the NFL,” the NFC executive told me. 

Even if there were a federal database, teams aren’t incentivized to look any further than a vaccine card that passes the eye test with all the proper boxes filled in. Clubs want players to be available. If they are “vaccinated,” that means they won’t be removed from the building for being close contacts. It’s in everyone’s best interest—except that of public health—for teams to believe their players’ vaccine cards are real, or at least to not ask too many questions about it.

The third agent told me that in his experience, teams don’t look too hard into whether a player is really vaccinated. When a team is interested in one of his guys, some will ask him for a picture of the player’s vaccine card and some won’t ask for it at all. He said has a folder on his phone labeled “Vaxxed” where he’s stored all the photos of his clients’ CDC cards, ready at a moment’s notice when he gets a call or a text from a club employee. The photo is enough proof for them. 

A fourth NFL agent said that he recently had a team reach out about one of his clients, a free agent. The team employee asked about his client’s vaccination status, and the specific dates of his vaccinations. The agent didn’t know off the top of his head, so he said he needed a second to look through some texts and find out. While he was searching through his texts, the team employee texted him, “Honestly, man, you said he's vaccinated, all right, that's cool.”

A fifth agent, who declined to talk for this piece, may have inadvertently summed up the NFL’s mindset on verifying easy-to-fake vaccine statuses. “Staying far away from that one,” the agent told me. “I don’t ask questions I don’t want to know answers to.”

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