In early summer, leadership for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFL’s defending Super Bowl champions, started a big push for players to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Four former Bucs players spoke to Defector Media about the Buccaneers’ vaccination process.
Two, let’s call them Players A and B, recalled a big push leading up to the Super Bowl ring ceremony on July 22. Player A said the team sent vaccine reminder notifications through the Teamworks app to players’ iPads that said something to the effect of: If we get X number of guys vaccinated, we will be able to have the ring ceremony.
Another former Buc, Player C, said quarterback Tom Brady often spoke to teammates during training camp and OTAs about the importance of getting vaccinated. He’d bring it up when the players would break from walk-through or practice and tell them about how it can help “in your employment and your health journey,” as Player C remembered. The Buccaneers even used colored wristbands to differentiate between vaccinated (yellow) and unvaccinated (red) players during training camp.
Some of the players weren’t fazed by the wristbands. Player C said he had no issue with it because in the NFL, “every part of your body and physical ability is on display.” But Player B was more upset.
“I thought it was kind of B.S.,” said Player B. “It felt like it was turning players against each other, because, well you’re vaccinated and he’s not vaccinated, and you know, I felt like it was causing a little divide. I feel like if we want to be a team we need to stick together no matter what, if you’re vaccinated or not.”
Yet at first, this all appeared to have worked. On Sept. 2, just after the team made final cuts to whittle down to a 53-man roster and 16-man practice squad, the Bucs announced they were at 100 percent vaccination for all members of the coaching staff and all players.
They were not.
On Thursday, the NFL announced the suspensions of Bucs star receiver Antonio Brown—a favorite target of Brady’s—safety Mike Edwards, and free agent receiver John Franklin III, each for three games without pay after an investigation by the league and the players’ union found that these players violated the NFL-NFLPA COVID-19 protocols. The NFL and NFLPA said in a release that they reviewed recent allegations that players “misrepresented their vaccination status” and “that review supported those allegations.”
But just how Brown got a fake vaccine card, how he fooled the team, and how long it went on were things neither the NFL nor the NFLPA chose to address. Instead, in its place, reporters and those who are willing to speak to them, are cobbling together answers to the big question: How did a high-profile player on one of the league’s supposedly 100-percent vaccinated teams pull this off?
ESPN reported on Thursday that “the league’s investigation found that Brown brought a fake vaccination card with him to training camp, but shortly after he arrived someone told him having one could get him in trouble, so he made the decision to get vaccinated.” Sports Illustrated reported that Brown, Edwards, and Franklin all used vaccine cards from Citrus County, which is about an hour and a half north of Tampa and is a place that none of the three players have known connections to.
The league launched an investigation after a November Tampa Bay Times report that a former personal chef of Brown said that Brown’s girlfriend had asked him over text message if he could get a fake vaccine card for Brown and that Brown would pay him $500 for one.
The chef, Steven Ruiz, later told ESPN that Brown got his card from another Buccaneers player.
“He got them from another player who was selling them,” said Ruiz, who declined to name the player. “That player came over to the house multiple times. He had to get another copy of Cyd’s vaccine card because they got her birthday wrong on the first one.”ESPN
A few days later, Ruiz appeared on Los Angeles sports radio and said Brown told him that “he had purchased it from another player on the team,” and that player’s name was “Franklin.”
Ruiz told the Times that he spoke with NFL investigators a week ago Wednesday, for about 10 minutes over the phone, and the investigators asked him about John Franklin III.
“I told [NFL investigators] I thought Franklin was the one selling the cards,” Ruiz told the Times. “They asked me if I saw any monetary transactions and I said, ‘No, but the cards came from him. [Brown] said he had paid for them.’”
Defector twice called a cell phone number listed under Franklin’s name and reached a voicemail message identifying the owner as “JF3.” On the third call, a female voice picked up the phone and claimed to not know anyone by the name of John Franklin III. Franklin’s agent James Paul did not return multiple calls, a text, and an email. Brown released a statement saying he is currently vaccinated. It also included the extremely wishy-washy language of saying Brown supports the vaccine for “any person for whom it is appropriate”—which is the vast majority of people, according to medical experts.
The league’s release about the players’ suspensions is the first time Edwards’s name has been mentioned in the fake vaccine card story. Ruiz said in a text message to Defector that he didn’t know anything about Mike Edwards, and is not sure how he got involved in the investigation. When Defector called Edwards, he declined to comment and deferred to the news reports already published. “Everything is in it,” he said.
Publicly, at least before the Brown story, Bruce Arians wasn’t shy about voicing his support for the vaccine. He updated reporters regularly on the percentage of Buccaneers players who were vaccinated.
“I’m the specialist,” Arians told reporters in June. “If you wanna go back to normal, get vaccinated … Eighty-five percent is what we’re shooting for … It’s still a personal choice, but I don’t see a reason not to be vaccinated.”
And in conversations with players, Arians was just as big of an advocate.
“He was really practical like he has been known for, he will shoot you straight,” said Player C. “He said, ‘Guys, if you test positive and you didn’t have the vaccine and you have to be out for two weeks, even if you are a guy that is going to make the 53 but maybe you aren’t a star, the front office might cut you and it is what it is.’ … Bruce was very honest about it, and he didn’t try to peer-pressure anybody to do what they didn’t want to do but he did lay the facts on the table in terms of health and how this is going to affect your employment status.”
Across the NFL, players on the bubble have gotten vaccinated if for no other reason than to improve their job security. One veteran NFL agent with about 50 clients in NFL training camps told Defector at the time that he and his staff had called the ones who were not guaranteed starters to tell them that they must get vaccinated.
“I just want you to know I am not fucking around here,” the agent said he told the players. “If you don’t get vaccinated, you are going to get cut. If it comes down to it, if you don’t get vaxxed, I can’t help you.”
One agent told Defector they are convinced that a veteran player they represent was cut from the Buccaneers during the final roster cutdown because the player was not vaccinated. “He was the best [position group] player and they let him go because he wasn’t vaxxed,” the agent told me in a text.
Player C knew he was a long shot to make the roster, and that was the main reason he got vaccinated in April.
“Being a guy who was trying to compete for the practice squad,” he said, “I didn’t have the luxury to miss any time.”
Player A told me about a different Bucs player, a special teams player, who he thought was cut for being unvaccinated. “I can’t speak for any other reason for why he wouldn’t have made the team. The way he played throughout training camp, he should have made the team. I know there were a lot of questions about him getting cut because of how he played. I thought he played really well and then somebody else made it and I knew he was very anti-vax, so I didn’t know if that was why. When I saw it, I thought that might be a topic down the line that could come up.” That player in question did not return calls or texts from Defector. Both players who were cut are now on other NFL rosters.
All four players Defector spoke to said they didn’t hear anything about fake cards when they were with the Buccaneers. But three agreed that having a fake card wouldn’t be difficult in the NFL.
“NFL guys have plenty of money and connections, so could you fake it? You could fake a lot of things,” Player C said. “But I think the team did a good job in terms of wanting to see your vaccine card and making sure that they submitted it to the NFL. It’s not their responsibility to double check with the hospital.”
Or, as Player A put it: “I mean, it’s just a piece of paper.”
The fourth player found it hard to believe that anyone with so much on the line would risk using, or especially selling fake cards.
“Why would these men making … millions of dollars worry about a vaccination card for a hundred bucks?” Player D said. “That doesn’t even make sense! A player might as well just slang cocaine if they are going to do something dumb and try to make a lot of money. It doesn’t make sense!”
Defector reached out to the NFL and NFLPA to ask whether they checked the vaccine cards for every Buccaneers player, or just the ones mentioned in news reports for having fake cards, and as of publication time had not heard back.
Player A also said that he remembered a full-team meeting during training camp where an NFL employee covered the topic of fake vaccine cards. Player A said the meeting was mandatory for all players, and he wasn’t “counting heads” but he assumed Brown would have been present for the meeting.
When the Times report came out, the Buccaneers released a statement that said they received completed vaccination cards from all players, reviewed them, found no irregularities, and then submitted the information to the NFL. (“There is no story,” Arians went so far as to say.) They were hardly even being evasive in this statement: The league has no requirements as far as actually verifying a vaccine card goes. Players can get vaccinated at a team facility or they can do it elsewhere and show up with their card. Players B and D got vaccinated at the Bucs’ facility, but Players A and C got vaccinated when they were home during the offseason. All they had to do was show and then send a photo of their vaccination card to the Bucs staff, which they did. The Tampa Bay Times reported that Alex Guerrero, Tom Brady’s controversial personal trainer, had taken a photo of Brown’s vaccine card while at his house and sent the photo to the team’s head trainer.
After the NFL announced the suspensions Thursday, the Buccaneers changed their tune, saying: “We appreciate the League’s timely handling of this matter and recognize the importance of the health and safety protocols that have been established. We will continue to implement all league COVID-19 protocols.”
“Today’s statement from the league proves that the information I provided to the Tampa Bay Times was true,” Ruiz said in a text to Defector. “Although I think a three-game suspension is a minor punishment, I trust the league’s judgement and I’m glad the NFL conducted a swift investigation.”
The Bucs did all they were required to do, which wasn’t all that much in the first place. Wondering if anyone noticed anything strange or different about Brown’s, Edwards’s, or Franklin’s vaccine cards is almost a moot point: Even if someone did notice, why would they speak up? Brown is one of the top receivers in the league when healthy, the Bucs are expected to make another Super Bowl run, and he’s a personal favorite of Brady’s. If there is one thing a global pandemic cannot change about the NFL, it’s that people tend not to see things they don’t want to see.