According to a Tampa Bay Times report published on Thursday, Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown acquired and utilized a fake vaccination card prior to the current season, in what would be a clear violation of NFL rules, as well as a federal crime. According to a team statement also released on Thursday, this isn’t really the Bucs’ problem.
The team seems intent on passing the buck to the NFL, which has not set up a stringent procedure for teams checking vaccination statuses. Specifically, there are no real guidelines for teams checking the validity of vaccination cards. When our own Kalyn Kahler reported on the NFL’s issues with fake cards in September, she spoke to team trainers who said that the league didn’t really provide any guidance on how to spot a fake card, and that the confirmation procedure wasn’t any more rigorous than taking photos of the submitted cards and sending them to the league. If a player presents a card and it doesn’t look clearly fake, that is probably good enough for all 32 teams. According to the Times report, which was based on information given by Brown’s disgruntled ex-personal chef, Steven Ruiz, the team sent Tom Brady’s buddy and sketchy health guru Alex Guerrero to photograph Brown’s vaccination card in July.
Ruiz stated to the Times that he did not believe that Guerrero doubted the validity of Brown’s vaccination card, and that the team would often send Guerrero or other organization members to photograph the cards to send to head trainer Bobby Slater, in order to expedite the process. This is not a cause for concern in and of itself; the Buccaneers simply followed the league’s procedure for verification. As such, the wording of the team’s statement isn’t accidental; “established process,” “league policy,” and “no irregularities were observed” are phrases that have nothing to do with uncovering Brown’s actual vaccination status and everything to do with the Bucs covering their own asses.
Brown is not the only player who could have used a fake vaccination card to avoid the more stringent protocols placed upon unvaccinated players. It’s probably hyperbole to say this is a league-wide problem, but it is a problem that falls to the league to solve; according to CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones, a league spokesman told him that “No club has reported any issues during the verification process.” Teams are incentivized to get all of their players vaccinated, thanks to the looser protocols and shorter turnarounds on any potential breakthrough infections for any players who are vaccinated. In other words, if a player were to present a card that looks real, there is no real reason for a team to investigate further; in fact, there are a plethora of reasons for a team to not ask too many questions.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Buccaneers still do not plan to do any further investigating into Brown’s situation, even with the Tampa Bay Times report. The NFL has to step in to do it, something that league spokesman Brian McCarthy told the Times that it will do, 11 weeks into the season. Whether Brown is vaccinated—his lawyer told 10 Tampa Bay that he is in fact vaccinated—remains to be seen. What the team’s statement makes clear, though, is that the Buccaneers are confident in their application of the league’s loose process for verification, and so they will carry on their merry way while the NFL figures out how badly it fucked this whole thing up.