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The NFL battle against Covid has no end in sight

Too many players are willing to put their bad “science” ahead of their team.

Levi Stadium Opens As Mass Covid Vaccination Site Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The specter of Covid lingers over the NFL with training camps beginning around the league. The hope of a normal season has now evaporated with the spread of the Covid 19 Delta variant, and new CDC guidelines advising the return of masks in areas where the spread is at its worst. It’s unclear at this time how the Delta variant could potentially alter the season for fans if left uncontrolled.

When it comes to players, there’s considerably less mystery. They’ve had every opportunity to try to normalize this process as much as possible.

Vaccines have been offered to every player and team official. The league has made it abundantly clear how the season will be altered for players deciding not to be vaccinated, the NFLPA is offering a wealth of scientific information for players wanting to know more about the virus and the vaccine, and teams have been informed that a game that has to be cancelled due to a Covid outbreak would be subject to a forfeit by the team which caused it. Still, there’s a substantial number of players willing to risk their personal, and team seasons, listening to charlatans, snake oil salesmen and misinformation, rather than vetted, reliable sources. It’s helped turned a worldwide effort to collectively protect society, into a political hill many are willing to die on, including players.

So far the NFL’s efforts and societal pressure has partially worked. It’s led to smart decisions by players like Sam Darnold of the Panthers and Ryan Tannehill of the Titans to get the vaccine. Tannehill was open about his decision, saying he likely wouldn’t have gotten the jab if not for the pressure put on him by the NFL. There is no doubt that unvaccinated players willing to put themselves over their team will hurt their organizations as a result, so for Darnold and Tannehill they made the best decision, before it was too late.

However, there remains a substantial portion of NFL players who are uninformed, and are choosing not to receive the vaccine — which has been shown to protect against serious symptoms and potentially death in all current variants of Covid. Carson Wentz, who wore a mask during his media availability Wednesday (a requirement for unvaccinated players) said he wouldn’t discuss his vaccine status, calling it a “personal decision.”

Bills receiver Cole Beasley, the most outspoken proponent of not getting the vaccine, has willingly become the biggest distraction on a team with the potential of pushing for a Super Bowl in 2021. He was criticized for his approach towards the vaccine on Twitter, and allowed that to bleed into the football team. The issue became so pronounced that on Wednesday he gave a prepared statement to the media.

Beasley, who couldn’t work out how to wear a mask that covered his nose and mouth at the same time, insinuated that there was “information being withheld,” in a conspiracy between the NFL, NFLPA and other associated organizations. He went on to say that players were not given the “proper information,” regarding the vaccine. Positioning himself as a pariah, Beasley said his stance against the Covid vaccine wasn’t about him, but unnamed “young players” who reached out to him for advice about the vaccine. Beasley finished by saying that his decision not to be vaccinated was based on not getting 100 percent certainty on its safety from doctors he has spoken to.

There are, of course, myriad problems with Beasley’s argument and logic. Firstly, there is zero evidence of information being withheld from players — either by the NFL, or the NFLPA. In fact, the union has an entire website of resources set up for active players, including transcripts of all conference calls regarding Covid, as well as a link for players to get more personalized information, as well as the contact information for experts, should they have further questions. The amount of transparency on the issue is unparalleled.

The issue appears to be what Beasley considers to be “proper information,” which, in other words, is information that directly lines up with his biases. In recent weeks Beasley has shared tweets from Robert W. Malone, a discredited scientist banned from YouTube and LinkedIn for misinformation. Malone was banned for saying the Pfizer mRNA vaccine causes “cell death” in the liver, a claim that is not supported anywhere in the world. Beasley also shared a link from the Epoch Times, a media organization at the front line of spreading Covid hoaxes, which was called a “super spreader” of Covid misinformation by an independent analytics firm looking at the spread of virus misinformation on Facebook.

So, rather than using the wealth of resources at his disposal from the scientific community, Beasley is making his “informed” opinion, based on already discredited sources — then saying by not including these charlatans, the NFL and NFLPA are withholding information.

One element of Beasley’s statement does hold true, however. That is the lack of absolute and complete certainty that there will be zero side effects from a Covid vaccine. That is true. We do not have absolute, guaranteed certainty of the vaccine’s safety. Of course, asking for guarantees like that is also an effort to move the goalposts on the issue. NFL players have been shot up with painkiller cocktails for years without knowing their safety. They wear pads designed to offer some, but not complete, 100 percent protection. Heck, turn on the TV and see an add for an antacid, odds are it closes with a list of “rare, but potentially serious side effects.” So, by asking for a complete guarantee only when it comes to the Covid vaccine it sets up a logical fallacy which sounds compelling, but holds no water.

In short: Beasley spoke a lot, and said nothing.

Beyond Cole Beasley comes a horrific, growing callousness among players when it comes to the issue. Many of whom aren’t willing to protect the vulnerable around them. Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera was left crestfallen by players on his team who are unwilling to get the vaccine.

Rivera was diagnosed with cancer in 2020, and his treatment left him immune compromised and vulnerable. Despite knowing this, Washington remains one of the lowest vaccinated teams in the NFL. When Rivera spoke about his dismay, the response from former NFL All-Pro safety TJ Ward was to suggest Rivera retire from the NFL, even insinuating it was his “decision” to get cancer, in a now-deleted tweet which he has since apologized for.

The callousness of Ward’s tweet underscores the battle the league is facing when it comes to getting players to act responsibly. The league and the player’s union can provide every available resource in the world to players, but many are still deciding to listen to unreliable sources spouting vaccine misinformation as a means to build a brand with a new captive audience.

Up to this point the NFL has been supremely patient waiting for players to make the smart decision for them, and their teams by receiving the vaccine. Now, weeks away from the start of the season, the message still isn’t being heard by far too many.

If players won’t listen to science, there’s really nothing left that can be done. We will roll up to the 2021 season with Covid being a weekly issue, some teams will be forced to forfeit games, and if you’re a fan of a team with a low vaccination rate, well, it’s probably time to write off this year. When you’re looking for someone to blame look first at the players who decided not to get vaccinated — they made the decision to listen to bad sources and become a distraction.