LAKE FOREST – NFL training camps across the country opened for all 32 teams Tuesday including the Chicago Bears, and most notably team facilities were open; players, coaches, front office folks and media were all in the same rooms, face-to-face; and your stock in Zoom — if there is such a thing — probably took a nosedive.
But as everyone renewed acquaintances and celebrated another new beginning as well as the perceived “return to normal,” it was impossible to escape the feeling that the biggest story of the coming season could once again be the novel coronavirus.
Asked right out of the box if he expected his club to achieve the NFL’s target of at least 85% of players getting vaccinations, general manager Ryan Pace told us, “Yeah, we feel really good about it, the way it’s gone. The way it’s trending.
“Our staff has done an awesome job, starting with Matt communicating with our players, educating our players. So we feel good about that 85% number.”
It’s clear both Pace and head coach Matt Nagy would be a lot happier if all of their players were vaccinated, but knowing that’s unlikely to happen, Nagy talked about the best he can do.
“What we did was we lived by the ‘encourage and educate’ [motto] and try to let them understand the ‘why’ part.
“If we just tell them, ‘Hey, listen, for these different reasons, it can be a lot more convenient in the football world and for these reasons it can be good for you health-wise.’ Everything that everybody went through last year, in 2020, we were all a little bit inconvenienced, because we had to. Now, with the new rules, if you get vaccinated, it’s different.
“But there’s so many different things that go into it, and we just, hey, listen, educate them, and then they make their own decision.”
The obvious question is why doesn’t the league just mandate the shot for everyone?
It isn’t unanimous, but most legal experts believe private business can require their employees to get vaccinated. So why not come as close as they can to guaranteeing a season at worst barely interrupted by COVID-19?
The answer obviously is because much like NFL players, some percentage of America doesn’t believe in and/or want the vaccine. Current polls suggest it’s in the 30% range, and the NFL doesn’t want another “National Anthem Debate” on its hands.
Angering a third of your fan base isn’t particularly good for ticket or merchandise sales or television ratings.
So instead, Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are trying to thread a very fine needle, allowing players to make their own choice but punishing them severely if they don’t get vaccinated, get sick and cause their team to miss games.
If that happens, the game could be forfeited, and every player on the forfeiting team will lose a game check.
For Allen Robinson, that one check would be a little over $1 million, and for all we know he may be vaccinated.
How would he feel about a hit like that caused by a teammate who could have avoided it if he’d just gotten his shots?
“I can’t go into this trying to force guys or incentivize guys to get a vaccine or something like that to play a game for my sole benefit,” Robinson said.
“Guys have whatever kind of beliefs or understandings that they want to have when it comes to the vaccine, and that is what it is.”
Being the class act that A-Rob is, it’s the answer I should have expected. But how will players around the league feel when it actually happens knowing with what we’ve learned about the virus so far it most likely will?
It could get ugly.
Will teammates end up in endless debate with anti-vaxers trying to avoid a serious loss like that before it happens? Could it become as polarizing as some Democrats and Republicans have become in their political debates?
New starting quarterback Andy Dalton told me, “I think we’ll cross that when it comes to it.”
OK, but what the NFL has done in trying to make everyone happy is create an avenue for real turmoil.
We can only hope it won’t be realized and become the next big scar the virus leaves behind.