Player 1, as we’ll call him, had COVID-19 last season and missed about two weeks of work. The heart palpitations he got on Day 7 of his sickness scared him so badly that he called his team’s trainer to check his vitals and calm him down. “I thought I was going to the upper room,” he said.
Player 1 didn’t end up going to heaven or the hospital. He recovered, and is now going into his second NFL season. An undrafted player, he had minimal playing time as a rookie and is fighting to earn a roster spot on a new team. When he catches a ride with a teammate to the team facility, they usually just drop him off at the testing center. They’re vaccinated; Player 1 wasn’t. Vaccinated players don’t need to go in for daily testing.
When I called Player 1 to talk about the COVID vaccine, he started off by saying that he’d decided to get it, and planned to see about signing up for the shot through his team the last week before summer break. He attended an NFLPA virtual meeting about the vaccine in February, alongside what he estimated was 1,400 other players. At the time, he said, he felt like he learned everything he needed to know, so he logged off the meeting before the NFLPA leadership took questions. His mom, a nurse, encouraged him to get the vaccine to protect his toddler-aged son. His current team has informed its players about all the incentives for vaccinated players: no masks, biweekly testing instead of daily, no mandatory quarantine for being ruled a close contact, travel allowed on the bye week. “I see my teammates, they are getting it, so it’s only right that I follow that trend too,” he said, early in our call.
But then he mentioned how he found out about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause, on an otherwise humorous Instagram meme account. “But this day there was nothing funny about this, this was like, really informative,” he told me. “It woke me up.” He was already scared of the vaccine symptoms, and he didn’t feel like he absolutely needed the vaccine because he wasn’t hanging around big groups of people anyways. He said his worst fear is getting COVID again, and he knows from his mother that the vaccine reduces the severity of COVID symptoms, but he’s bothered by the fact that vaccinated people can still get the virus. “Whether I got the shot or not, if I caught it, [I am] still going to be out [a game].”
After 30 minutes on the phone, he had backed off his commitment to get vaccinated. “I am still just undecided,” he said. “Will it happen? Maybe? But it’s not going to happen tomorrow.”
Player 1’s specific experience is unique, but his indecision is certainly familiar to many NFL players choosing whether to receive the COVID vaccine, and processing complex, sometimes contradictory information provided by their teams, their agents, their union, teammates, the government, even social media. I wanted to get a better sense of where players are getting their information, and how they’re weighing the various sources, so I spoke to six players, chosen more or less at random, to get at one basic question: What do you know about the vaccine?
I granted each player anonymity so that he could freely express his thoughts without risking retaliation from his team, or in Player 2’s case, his own parents, who don’t know he is vaccinated and wouldn’t approve of it. Four of the six players were fully or partially vaccinated, one was undecided, and one, a free agent, said he will never get it. Two said they would not have gotten the vaccine if they didn’t play in the NFL. Only one player said he got the vaccine for a reason other than football: He wanted to protect his kids.
Player 1: Second-year offensive player, unvaccinated, undecided, had COVID.
Player 2: Veteran special teams player, vaccinated.
Player 3: Veteran offensive player, vaccinated, had COVID.
Player 4: Second-year offensive player, vaccinated.
Player 5: Veteran defensive player, vaccinated, had COVID.
Player 6: Veteran defensive free agent, unvaccinated, had COVID.
Did your team give you information about the vaccine?
Player 1: They had some doctors come in a couple weeks ago to give shots to guys who wanted it, but that was a time when I was still like, I’m not sure yet. … I learned about the vaccine through the NFLPA, I got on a zoom call, it was an informative meeting to get players to learn about how beneficial the vaccines are … I didn’t stick around for the questions. Once I heard what I needed to hear, I went off. [They said] that it’s beneficial. They say sooner or later all the coaches will have it done. Players, they can choose whether to get it or not, but they said they highly recommend that players do get it.
Player 2: We have had various [team] meetings about it. Last year, the team did a good job giving us the latest data they could, it was screened for factual information and then when we came in in the offseason and they had the vaccine available. We did probably two or three things with the trainers where they walked us through the three different vaccines, what they were, the pros and cons as far as, if you get it there is a 96 percent chance of not getting the virus, and if you do still get the virus, then your chances of having severe complications are reduced.
Player 3: When I was with [my previous team], I talked to the trainer there, and I was asking him about the vaccine and about how—I know how the flu vaccine used to be, how they would put a weaker strain of the flu in you so your body would build immunity to it. So then that’s how I was thinking that the COVID vaccine was. I was like, so you have to basically get COVID to be able to fight it? I was resistant to it because I didn’t want to put COVID in my body at all and he was like, that was the old method of how they used to do it, and the new technology in this vaccine, they have a way where they put something in that will have your body react to it like it would to fight COVID, where you would build the same antibodies as you would to fight COVID. That’s what he told me, that they aren’t actually putting COVID in you but they are putting something in you to help you fight it for when your body does encounter COVID.
Player 4: I got the J&J. The Pfizer and Moderna, I heard it’s like two shots, and that’s pretty much all I know about it. …[My team] gives us Powerpoints and our team doctor, he comes in and tells us that if you get the vaccine you won’t have to sit from games, you won’t have to wear masks, so I feel like it was forced a little bit, but not really. I feel like [the education] is more focused on the games and practices and coming into the facility. I don’t think it is more about the health.
Player 5: My mom is a nurse so I got my information from her. The team did have a certified virologist, or whatever that doctor term is, come talk to us about the virus and how the vaccine works and all that.
Player 6: Well, it’s like blind sheep going off the edge. I’m just talking from a holistic standpoint. For me, I didn’t get the vaccine because I don’t want to get the vaccine and I don’t want to take it, so I didn’t. But anybody else, that is their right. I don’t think anybody should be forced to do something or be coerced into it, it’s just whatever they feel like doing. And on top of that, if you start to look at when it was brought out, you start to see the signs. I am not into the whole conspiracy thing, but at the same time, some things are quite fishy when it comes to all of this stuff and how it all came about and how sudden. Where do I get my information from? Oh different people, different sites—I have people who work in the medical field, and I hear from them and I hear their stories, and it is what it is. I don’t put too much emphasis on it.
What research did you do outside of team- or NFLPA-provided information?
Player 1: The Pfizer is a lot more beneficial and more successful than the J&J. I heard that through Instagram really, Instagram was giving an informative message and then the next day, that’s when I heard that they had to hold back on the J&J shots because people were getting blood clots and shit. I was like whoa, that’s what made me even go, Well OK, if the Johnson & Johnson is having problems and they are stopping that, who knows what if this Pfizer or this other one might have some symptoms? That was another reason why I was like I don’t know if I even need that shit, if they are having troubles like that.
Player 2: Yeah, when [my team] gave the available doctors to call to find different information. I wanted to talk to a doctor about different things for my wife because she is breastfeeding and the research did come out that the effect, depending on what news station you listen to, babies can get antibodies, and it is not harmful. So we decided to give our baby the antibodies through my wife’s breast milk and her having the vaccine was a smart way to go with it.
Player 3: I didn’t really do a whole lot of research, I just talked to that trainer back when I was with [my old team] and my mom sends all kinds of stuff trying to convince us to get it, and I halfway read that, different little articles.
Player 4: I hardly did any research, I am not going to lie. I just watched the news, and I kind of feel like, I won’t say I got forced to get it, but I just wanted to get it out the way.
Player 6: Yeah, the vaccine and the people who receive it, the death rate goes down tremendously, but anything that you get from [COVID], you are not going to die. You may have some symptoms but it is not going to be worse than what you had before. It’s not going to kill you. I am not saying [COVID] is not real. It is there. It is definitely man-made, it was cooked up. The Lysol bottle, it has “corona” on it, if you see the back of it. So this is like killing [the coronavirus], to spray it. So it’s been here before. It’s just more potent this time around and now they have made a vaccine for it that actually cures that type of symptoms where it is harder to get it. I am not saying [COVID] is not there. It’s just the part of who all put into it to get it going. You see the people who have benefitted from [COVID], it ain’t rocket science. So, I am not saying that, but at the same time I am not trying to be a person that the wool is pulled over my eyes.
What are your reasons for getting the vaccine, or not?
Player 1: I am still undecided. I understand you may have got it a month ago, well, tell me how you are feeling in the next few months. And maybe the next three months and if everything is OK then, I’ll get it. If I am going to get it, I’ll get it before preseason.
Player 2: I personally don’t feel that COVID is a crazy thing. I am very healthy and my wife is very healthy but at the same time it makes my life a lot easier not going through the protocols we did last year and I am not going to miss a game for someone popping (testing positive), so yes, I am vaccinated with the Pfizer …The biggest thing for me was, OK, I don’t have to wake up 45 minutes earlier to make sure I get my nose swabbed every day. I can get it once a week (Note: Since this interview, the NFL and NFLPA have announced testing for vaccinated players will take place every two weeks) and knock that out and do that on my own time and then I am not missing games if someone pops next to me.
Player 3: I started the process and got my first dose [three weeks ago at a local hospital the team set him up with]. Only because of really, the pressure it felt like coming from the NFL and not wanting to be limited as much as they are going to limit non-vaccinated players. … One, to avoid fines, because there are a lot of times where I forgot my mask and if you get caught without a mask, that’s $20,000 (Note: actually $14,650) right there or if you miss a test, that’s $50,000, so I am avoiding those huge fines and then the bye week, of course I am going to want to go home and I don’t want to be stuck here having to do COVID tests every day. And then just hoping that the vaccination is doing what the vaccination is supposed to do and make me safe.
Player 4: So I actually got vaccinated [three weeks ago at the team facility] and I got the J&J shot so that can be one and done and after two weeks, you don’t have to wear a mask, so that’s the reason why I got it. I didn’t want to wear a mask in the facility and keep getting tested and stuff like that. … I always wanted to get the vaccine because I have kids and I don’t want it to affect them.
Player 5: I am probably in the healthiest time of my life, so I am not really worried about the virus per se, but I do think that society is slowly going to make your life hell until you get it, as far as the jumping through hoops, showing documentation for our COVID test … with the NFL with the protocols you have to go through if you aren’t vaccinated: getting tested every day, having to wear a mask again, having to sit out five days if you are around anyone who tests positive, can’t leave the city during the season for any reason, have to come in on off-days on the bye week to test. All of that is just a big hassle, so it was just, let’s knock it out. I got it done on my own, about [six] weeks ago.
Player 6: I am fine just where I am. [I tested positive for COVID], I had a symptom of it, and I am just fine. I think everybody has something that deals with the flu, cold, whatever the case may be and you get over it. Some don’t and it’s the way of life and it sucks, but at the end of the day, we are only here for a moment in time. What you do with that time is precious. You can guard yourself so much [with] the vaccine but then guess what? You come out of your house, you get in your car and you have an accident, and you are not here tomorrow, so what is the protection that you really have for yourself? You don’t. Nobody knows when their time is [over] here, but the thing is you are going to make the best out of it. So whether there is a vaccine or not, I just don’t believe that’s how we are going to check ourselves out of here.
Are the rules relaxing requirements for vaccinated players adding pressure to get vaccinated?
Player 1: No, not at all, I don’t mind being the oddball out of the bunch. I mean it in a good way, if you see others getting the shot, OK that is nice and that is cool and all. But that doesn’t really pressure me into getting one because it doesn’t work like that. Everybody gets the shot for their own reasons. Some people get it just to get it, others say, OK I have thought long and hard about this. I am not sure how long it took them to come up with this vaccination, maybe it’s been a year, and they trust these doctors and they trust the research staff, or they are putting their faith in God’s hands I guess.
Player 2: They never told us, We urge you to get this or We don’t urge you or discourage you. They never really forced your hand, they legally couldn’t and they didn’t, but what they did say is, Here is the carrot.
Player 3: If it wasn’t for the pressure from the league I probably wouldn’t have gotten it. I was one of the guys that thought it was too early for a vaccine to be administered. More time to see if there are any kind of side effects, or how it would affect people before I decided to get it.
Player 4: I felt like I had to get it because of the situation I am in (Note: He was undrafted and spent his rookie season on the practice squad). I felt like if I didn’t get it, that’s another reason like, OK, he is not a team player. And, with me, I am all about the team so, I just will do anything to stay on the team, basically. … I would say the majority of us [practice squad guys] got vaccinated because of that reason. I feel like it is more practice squad guys that got it than active roster guys.
Player 5: I feel like if you didn’t want to get it, you don’t have to get it, I think the NFL and everyone is smart enough that you can’t force anyone to take it but they can make you jump through so many hoops that you get sick of doing it, you know what I mean?
Player 6: I don’t think you need a vaccine, honestly, to be walking on earth. I can walk out my door and be not vaccinated and be just fine. So what’s the difference with walking into an NFL club and playing unvaccinated? It’s the same as last year. It will be the same thing we do this year and be just fine.
Have you had conversations with teammates who are against getting it?
Player 2: I have one teammate who just says, I am not doing it for religious reasons, the other says I don’t want it in my body. … I think the one who is doing it for religious reasons will probably be steadfast on that. And the other guy who says I am not putting it in my body, I think come Week 7 or 8, he might be like, Nah, I am not waking up early anymore.
Player 3: Oh yeah, there are definitely guys that are firmly against it. I feel like if a lot of guys are against getting it, then the league might put more pressure to make you get it and add more restrictions and more fines or something.
Player 4: Oh yeah, yeah [my quarterback]—he is not getting vaccinated. He was like, basically you can still get COVID and he said his theory is, five years from now, guys might turn into aliens or something like that. [laughs] It’s a joke but I feel like, c’mon dude. … He said he didn’t want to lose his abilities and he felt like he would slow him down.
Player 5: I don’t think anyone is that firm about it, from what I have talked about. Some guys are still hesitant, they don’t like needles or whatever the reason, everyone who has kids for the most part are vaccinated, it’s mainly the single guys. Maybe they are afraid of medical or whatever phobia they may have. … I would say probably around 97 or 98 percent [on my team will be vaccinated by training camp] and I give those guys another week or two of doing all the extra protocols before they get sick of it and go get vaccinated too.
How many of your teammates are vaccinated?
Player 1: I would say probably most of them have got the vaccine. … As our camp is starting to wrap down and the majority of my teammates are vaccinated, it’s probably a little over a handful of guys who aren’t. Pretty much everybody in the facility from the staff to the people working the cafeteria, the trainers, they are all vaccinated.
Player 3: I would probably say it is half and half. Half are for it, half are not. There were a few [players] in there [when I went for my shot]. Locker-room talk is pretty funny and entertaining, so we have some pretty good conversations about it. People have their stances on it, and you have the guy that thinks the vaccination will turn you into a zombie, you have guys that support it, you have guys that just think it’s too early, it’s not tested properly. There’s different people with a whole lot of different opinions.
Player 4: I think more people are vaccinated [than not] because once they see one person get it, then they hop on the train, so I would say like 60 percent. … I mean, you will see who got vaccinated and who not, because you see who is wearing a mask, or they have a bandaid on their arm and we talk about it then like, you should get vaccinated.
Player 5: I would say we are in the 75–80 percent range, a bunch of guys are getting the second shot this week or next week. It’s funny, we actually had this conversation today, one of these young brothers just asked me my opinion on him getting the vaccine or not, and I told him exactly what I said here. You are not going to want to jump through all those hoops. Your life will just be easier if you get it. And then I heard him go around asking everyone in the locker room if they had gotten it and every person said yes, they had gotten vaccinated already.
Do you feel certain you’ve made the right choice?
Player 2: I wish there were more research. I think it was brought up fast and our trainers were like, yeah when everyone comes together and works on a vaccine, you can produce something faster. I’m still in the mindset of, Yeah, that makes sense, but [I’d prefer] to see time and result, instead of being the guinea pig. But it is what it is.
Player 3: I really don’t know, I am hoping I did. I saw something here recently about them having some kind of emergency meeting about an inflamed heart or something and now that got me nervous, like uh-oh.
Player 4: Yes, because I have kids and I didn’t want to affect them and my girl. And also like, I feel more comfortable going into the facility knowing my teammates are vaccinated and we just go to work instead of being paranoid.
Player 5: Hell yes. Hell yes. I hated wearing masks, especially to work out and shit, I hated that.
“Just like everybody else, make your own decision,” said safety Harrison Smith, the Minnesota Vikings’ longest-tenured player, at a press conference where he revealed he hasn’t been vaccinated. Neither have receiver Adam Thielen and quarterback Kirk Cousins. These three Vikings veterans aren’t yet convinced they need the vaccine, but it’s not for lack of effort from their team. Behind the scenes, like most NFL teams, the Vikings have mobilized athletic training staff, coaching staff and even former players to lay out all the benefits of getting vaccinated.
Eric Sugarman, the Vikings’ head athletic trainer and infection control officer (a fancy title the league came up with last year to designate each team’s chief point of contact on COVID-19 issues), declined to give details about the progress of the team’s educational blitz, only saying that, “It has gone about as expected and I think we have a little bit more work to do.”
The Vikings have made the vaccine available to players four different times during the offseason program. Sugarman said there was an early rush among the players he calls “the early vaxxers, who really knew in their heart that they wanted to do it.” But since then, he said, the number of players getting the vaccine has slowed.
Sugarman said players generally ask questions about two main vaccine myths, which he is able to answer confidently in the negative. Will it change my DNA? Are there infertility side effects?
Sugarman’s job last season was consumed by managing COVID protocol and now he spends a huge chunk of his day on vaccine education. He’s held three or four full team meetings during the offseason program to discuss the vaccine, the most recent of which featured Hall of Famers and Vikings alumni John Randle and Alan Page, who are both vaccinated. Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, met with the Vikings last week, and Sugarman has had multiple conversations with smaller groups of players and in one-on-one settings, especially with the players who he says reported to the offseason program undecided about getting the vaccine.
He says the Vikings received educational material that came jointly from the league and NFLPA, a presentation he used in meetings with staff and players that explained the three types of vaccines and their differences, how mRNA technology works, the side effects, the benefits, and of course the number-one question: Will the league require players to be vaccinated? “We all know the answer is no,” he said. “So far there has been no mandate to make the players get vaccinated. They are a unionized workforce and I don’t think that would ever happen.”
But there are limits to how much players can be informed, especially if they are inclined to distrust the vaccine in the first place. “I probably won’t get vaccinated until I get more facts and that stuff,” said Washington DE Montez Sweat, a day after his team had one of the country’s leading immunologists speak to them virtually about the vaccine.
Players 3 and 4, both vaccinated, told me their teammates aren’t very engaged during their team’s vaccine meetings. “Early on when they first started saying stuff they would keep asking questions but now it’s like whenever they bring it up, people kind of blow it off, they don’t even want to hear about it anymore,” said Player 3.
“You can ask questions, but nobody asks questions,” said Player 4.
Among the materials given by the NFL to teams to use is an educational video on the vaccine, which I have viewed. It’s 23 minutes of people talking on Zoom calls, and let me tell you, I couldn’t make it more than a couple of seconds before getting bored.
“It’s tough to keep it interesting, I’ll be honest with you,” acknowledged Sugarman, who said he didn’t use the video in team meetings. “That’s a tough ask. I don’t know if anyone has found a way to do that.” He’s loaded vaccine information on players’ iPads, in the hopes they’ll consume and consult it on their own time.
But the science may matter less to football players than what vaccination could mean for their team and their careers. Head coach Mike Zimmer has spent time talking to players about the vaccine as a competitive advantage, information that Sugarman says often has more of an impact on players. “It is a game of availability and you want to have these guys available. … I had a lot of guys on the fence, and they would ask me, what do I get in return? Why should I do it? How will it benefit me in this building? Not so much in life, but they want to know how it was going to benefit them in the building.”
“The unvaccinated players are going to have a hard time during the season,” Zimmer told reporters last week. “They are going to be wearing masks, they’re going to have to socially distance, they’ll have daily testing. They won’t go home for bye week and have to come back here and test every day. When we go on the road, they won’t be able to go out to dinner with anybody. They’ll have to travel on busses differently and travel on planes differently, so a lot of meetings will be virtual like we have here. It’s not only the safety part of being vaccinated, but as far as being a part of a football team.”
Other things unvaccinated players have to live with: No meals with teammates, no using the sauna or steam room, no marketing appearances, no seeing friends or family on road trips, no gathering with teammates or staff outside of the facility for any reason, including football activities, no visiting clubs, bars, house parties, concerts etc., and hefty fines (up to $50,000) for violations of the protocols.
When asked about the difference in protocol for vaccinated vs. unvaccinated players, Cousins declined to acknowledge any advantage for vaccinated players. “It’ll be a lot like last year to that degree,” he said. “We’ve already lived it for one season. It’s a fluid situation and has been since the COVID pandemic began.”
But inside the building, the contrast between the two groups is obvious and the gap will only grow wider when the season begins. The first group of Vikings players who received their two shots together, the early vaxxers, recently became eligible to take their mask off while in the facility, 14 days post–second dose). Sugarman said those players were loud about their relief when that day came. “Some guys say they wanted to burn their mask,” he said. “They were very much enjoying it.”
The Vikings’ lingering vaccine hesitancy, despite a steady stream of education, is a familiar situation around the NFL. In Carolina, Christian McCaffrey declined to comment on his vaccination status and Sam Darnold said he’s not vaccinated. In Buffalo, Josh Allen declined to comment. In Baltimore, Lamar Jackson dodged the question. In Los Angeles, Justin Herbert said he’s among a “small group” of Chargers players who are vaccinated.
NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported that more than half of players on NFL rosters have now received at least one vaccine dose and that 16 teams now have 51 or more players (out of the current 90-man roster size) who have gotten at least one shot. An NFL spokesperson declined to give me specific numbers but said there was “an uptick” in vaccinations as teams concluded mini-camps last week. But there’s still a sense that these numbers could be disproportionately carried by fringe players trying to hang on to a roster spot; veterans and those starters with secure jobs, anecdotally, could be less vaccinated than the league as a whole.
One agent told Defector that only three of his 13 players have been vaccinated. “I was surprised at how few are getting vaccinated,” he said. “Especially those guys that have roster bonuses, per game bonuses, imagine getting knocked out of a game and losing that money!”
That agent represents a backup quarterback who has been vaccinated, and he wondered out loud whether the rest of that team’s QB room have gotten it. Because if they haven’t, “that would be great for him” and his prospects of earning the backup job.
Another agent expressed frustration that the NFLPA has not done enough to encourage players to get vaccinated. “The problem is the NFLPA is, while they say they are pro-vaccine, they aren’t pushing it hard enough because they are worried that the executive committee people are against it and they run the show and they won’t swim upstream even though it is best for the players,” the agent told me. “They are willing to fight for offseason rules because of COVID but they are not willing to fight and push the players to end COVID. It’s the ultimate hypocrisy.”
The NFLPA published a 31-question FAQ sheet about the vaccine on their website, and has made medical director Dr. Thom Mayer and members of the union’s COVID taskforce available to all players and their families. Mayer told reporters he’s taken over 200 calls from players about the vaccine.
“We’ve urged players to get the vaccine,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith told reporters in early June. “We’ve urged them to make sure that they just make a decision that’s informed.”
Agents, too, have incentives for convincing their clients to get vaccinated in a business where every edge matters. One agent told me that he’s been making sure to tell teams if his client has had COVID or if they are vaccinated, because last season, one team executive told him that they picked a tight end to sign because they needed the position and knew this particular player already had COVID so would be less likely to catch it again and spread it. “The truth is, the guys that are getting cut, signed, cut, signed—those guys aren’t impacting a team too much,” the agent said. “At that point, teams just want bodies that aren’t going to cause issues.”
One agent told me a team executive called him about an unvaccinated client recently, asking, Can you get your guy to go get vaccinated? Another agent said that when he contacts teams to try to get his clients jobs, he sends photos of their vaccination cards alongside their workout videos.
Player 6, the free agent who will not get the vaccine, said he is not concerned at all about how his vaccination status might affect his job market. “No, no, and no,” he said.
Player 1, the player fighting for a roster spot who was undecided about the vaccine, said that he hadn’t considered how it might affect his job prospects. “Hell no, I feel like me being available for every game is just making sure I am handling my business,” he said. “It ain’t got nothing to do with the vaccination.”
I reminded him that he tested positive for COVID last season, and he was probably handling his business then.
“I mean well, yeah, I mean, maybe you do have a point there. Now that you say that, that would make sense. That is a competitive advantage. You could be good one week and then if you test positive [or someone near you does], you’re out for another whole week.”
Player 1 was undecided on June 9, when we first spoke. When I checked in on him a week and a half later, he sent me a text message, ending with the sweating/smile emoji, to say he had gotten the Johnson & Johnson vaccine last week, on the final day of mini-camp.