NFL requires staff COVID-19 vaccinations as players push back on OTA safety

VACCINES: The NFL said today it expects clubs to vaccinate staff members. Nick Laham/Getty Images/Tribune News Service

NEW YORK — The NFL said Tuesday that it expects clubs to vaccinate staff members to keep their workplace safe for players and personnel, but the union continued pushing back on players reporting to team facilities at all this spring.

The Giants helped set the league’s example. A source told the New York Daily News on Tuesday that the Giants have made arrangements through Hackensack Meridian Health Systems to start vaccinating staff who haven’t already been inoculated against COVID-19.

That opportunity will be available to the Giants’ players, as well.

Players from the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks, however, both released statements through the NFL Players’ Association declaring they will not report for the start of voluntary OTAs next Monday, citing the persistence of COVID-19 and safety.

Not every Broncos or Seahawks player is boycotting, but it was enough for the union to speak on behalf of those respective rosters as negotiations with the league drag on.

“While many states in this country are still seeing rising COVID-19 numbers, we believe that a virtual offseason is best for everyone’s protection,” the Seahawks players said.

“COVID-19 remains remains a serious threat to our families and to our communities, and it makes no sense for us as players to put ourselves at risk during this dead period,” the Broncos players said.

The NFL’s contention, though, is that there is no safer location than their team facilities, especially after the memo they sent to clubs on Tuesday.

Giants co-owner John Mara co-authored the memo, as chairman of the management council’s executive committee, saying that the league both expects and requires staff vaccinations to ensure the 2021 season proceeds safely.

Most notably, Tier 1 and 2 employees other than players “should be expected to be vaccinated unless they have a bona fide medical or religious ground for not doing so,” the memo said.

“Any staffer that refuses to be vaccinated without either a religious or medical reason will not be eligible for Tier 1 or 2 status and therefore will not be permitted access to the ‘football only’ restricted area and may not work directly or in close proximity with Players,” the memo added.

Mara, Commissioner Roger Goodell and John York, chairman of the health and safety committee, wrote that the NFL’s expectation is that all 32 franchises will “use your stadium or training facility as a vaccination site for club staff, players, and eligible family members.”

“Our primary focus at all times will remain the health and safety of everyone associated with the NFL,” the memo said. “In light of expanded vaccine eligibility, it is appropriate now to take further steps to educate about and promote vaccine availability and acceptance within the NFL.”

The memo harped on teams educating and reinforcing the significance of vaccinations for staff, players and families. The NFL reminded teams that protocols can be relaxed down the road for franchises that demonstrate a certain level of compliance.

And the league asked for updates from every club on its plans to make vaccinations available, and an update on the percentage of staff vaccinated by next Monday, the scheduled start of OTAs.

“We are actively discussing with the NFLPA a set of protocol changes that would apply to clubs where vaccination levels reach a certain threshold and would give vaccinated individuals significant relief from requirements relating to testing, PPE use, physical distancing, travel and other subjects,” the league memo said. “Similar protocol changes have been adopted in other sports leagues and the prospect of relaxing COVID protocols in the NFL should help encourage players and staff to be vaccinated.”

It does not appear the league is able to require its players to be vaccinated, given their representation by the union. But the NFL did articulate an equivocal endorsement of the vaccine that greater society should heed, not just those in the league.

“The overwhelming consensus among medical and public health experts is that the most effective way for someone to avoid the risk of contracting COVID-19 — and the risk of infecting others — is to be vaccinated,” the NFL’s memo said. “Our medical team has worked closely with the NFLPA medical advisors to develop comprehensive educational material that reinforces this conclusion and addresses the safety and effectiveness of available vaccines.”