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Players React To The NFL's New Vaccine Policy

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Will private employers mandate their staffs to get a coronavirus vaccine? Well, the NFL has announced how they will try to pressure teams to up their vaccination numbers. They're going to use financial penalties. Kalyn Kahler reports on the NFL for Defector and joins us now.

Welcome.

KALYN KAHLER: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So talk us through this new policy. Like, how will it work exactly?

KAHLER: Yeah. So they came out with a memo last week that really made some waves in the NFL, specifically among players on Twitter. And the new memo said that if there was an unvaccinated outbreak within a team that caused a game to be canceled - which didn't happen at all last year, there were several games postponed, but there were no games that were actually canceled - then the team would be forced to forfeit that game, which is obviously a big penalty. That means the players aren't getting paid. And there are some financial consequences to the team as far as like the visiting team or, you know, the team - the opponent that they were playing. And as you mentioned, it's kind of a way that the NFL is requiring players to get vaccinated without actually requiring them to get vaccinated.

CHANG: I mean, we should note that the majority of players in the NFL are vaccinated. But I'm really curious about the individual attitudes of the players that you've been discovering because you profiled a number of them, some fully vaccinated, some who were not, all of whom wanted to remain anonymous in your reporting. What did their stories tell you about how these players were assessing COVID as a health risk?

KAHLER: I think they're very representative of the different attitudes and views on the vaccine of our nation. For the players who were hesitant about the vaccine, there's a huge range of reasons from, you know, questioning whether it was going to change their DNA to questioning if it has any effect on fertility. You know, both things, myths, you could say, that have been debunked. Those were the two most popular questions that the Vikings athletic trainer told me that he faced in his vaccine education. So there's really a wide range of reasons why these players are hesitant. You know, a lot of them are very particular about what they put in their body. And I think that's maybe a difference from, you know, the majority of the American population. Like, these are elite athletes who need to know that their body is going to function the way that it always has because their job depends on it. So I think that was a big reason as well.

And in addition to getting a really comprehensive vaccine course, education from their teams, a lot of them expressed this sort of like exhaustion with learning about it. And I think, like, a lot of the information from their teams was just going over their head a little bit because they were just tired of hearing it because they were getting a full-on education on this. Like, the teams are doing everything they could to tell these guys what the benefits were to getting the vaccine from a health perspective and also from a team perspective in how they can stay available for their jobs.

CHANG: Right. So, Kalyn, if we call you back midseason, do you think that we'll be talking about a 100% vaccination rate or do you think we're going to see continued reluctance?

KAHLER: I don't think it's ever going to be 100% because I do think there are a handful of guys who are set in their ways and they are not going to get it this year. But from talking to agents and talking to trainers and people around the league, there's a sense of people are going - these players are going to give in. Once they get to training camp, which they are right now, every - all 32 teams are reporting either today or this past weekend. Training camp is going full steam ahead. And once they realize how different their life is going to be as an unvaccinated player, I do think the majority of these vaccine-hesitant players are going to give in, and they're going to get the vaccine simply for the reason that it makes their life easier.

CHANG: Kalyn Kahler, NFL reporter for Defector.

Thank you very much.

KAHLER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.