Would a star NFL wide receiver quit the game rather than get vaccinated for COVID-19? On Thursday evening, DeAndre Hopkins, a three-time all-pro with the Arizona Cardinals, suggested as much. In a hastily deleted post, Hopkins tweeted: “Never thought I would say this, but being put in a position to hurt my team because I don’t want to partake in the vaccine is making me question my future in the NFL.”
Hopkins wasn’t the only football luminary to make their misgivings public. Leonard Fournette, a running back who helped power the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl last season, put it more succinctly. “Vaccine I can’t do it…,” he wrote about an hour after Hopkins. (His tweet was deleted shortly thereafter, as well.)
Though neither player explicitly said so, odds are their airing of grievances was prompted by the league itself. Earlier on Thursday, a league-wide memo was sent announcing there would be no rejiggering of its 17-game schedule to accommodate a possible COVID-19 outbreak, as first reported by the NFL Network’s Tom Pellissero.
Instead, a team that can’t suit up enough players would forfeit the game. If that wasn’t enough incentive, no one on the team in question or their opponent that week would receive their paychecks. For a minimum-salaried NFL player, it would amount to about a $39,000 fine. Star players could be docked seven figures, some of whom invariably will have done nothing wrong.
Last month, the NFL waved a similarly menacing stick. During the 2021 season, unvaccinated players would be subject to greater restrictions than their vaccinated brethren—daily testing, physical restrictions both on the road and in team facilities, lengthy quarantines for exposure, no hanging out with teammates at various bars and hotspots, and more.
Despite league owners’ conservative leanings and hefty GOP donations, when it comes to making sure their extremely valuable enterprise continues to chug along, those politics stop at the locker-room door. By whatever means necessary and in conjunction with the players’ union, they’re going to nudge their workforce into getting the jab.
The brow-furrowing by Hopkins and Fournette attracted plenty of attention—and probably a phalanx of agents and representatives frantically scrambling to get their clients on the blower—but in reality, the NFL’s and NFLPA’s efforts have mostly paid off. Pro football players outrank many fellow Americans in their age group when it comes to getting vaccinated. According to Judy Battista of NFL Media, 14 teams have hit the 85 percent threshold and 78 percent of all players have received their first dose.
To some, these measures have seemed excessive or even punitive. “[R]ead the rules-know em like you know your plays,” Las Vegas Raiders running back Jalen Richard tweeted at unvaccinated co-workers. “[W]e playing in jail this year and you should act as such.” One player seemingly groused at his union on Thursday for not pushing back.
This outpouring of vaccine hesitancy comes as the Biden administration redoubles its efforts to reach parts of the population amid a rise in both cases and hospitalizations in unvaccinated parts of the country.
But in the jumbled rationales coming from unvaccinated NFL players—deeming it a matter of privacy, the need to study the issue more, or Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley insisting the vaccine offended “my way of living and my values athletes”—they mimic the larger population: Confused or overwhelmed by information overload and ripe for exploitation by all manner of hucksters.
Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold didn’t seem to grasp that despite “staying by myself,” and not “having a family or anything like that,” his decision posed a risk to others. Montez Sweat, a defensive end with the Washington Football Team, was confused as to the vaccine’s importance, thinking it somehow was a cure for those who’d already contracted the virus. Others, like Darnold’s teammate Christian McCaffrey, New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson, and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, declined to answer at all when pressed by reporters. (Lest anyone think this is confined to a single sport, Major League Baseball players have clammed up or spewed nonsense like, “In the grand scheme it doesn’t matter.” When asked if he’d been vaccinated in May, LeBron James offered this non-response: “Anything of that nature is all family talk.”)
NFL players have retired for health reasons while still in their prime before. In 2015, a slew of athletes left sizable contracts on the table as they learned about the long-term health impacts of playing the game, including repeated blows to the head. Later on Thursday, Hopkins clarified—again, it seems likely an agent or two talked him down from the ledge—that he wasn’t seriously considering an end to his career.
He did cryptically post a single word: “Freedom?” after the online backlash kicked into gear. In response to Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey’s encouragement to those still on the fence, Hopkins said a relative of his girlfriend dealt with serious side effects. That too was deleted.
Perhaps, though, the NFL has inadvertently stumbled on to a way to change a few hearts and minds. Not necessarily with regards to the league’s rank-and-file, but with the general population. All it would take is one forfeited loss added to, say, the New England Patriots or the Dallas Cowboys’ column.
What if it were a pivotal game where the winner might make the playoffs and the loser is sent packing for the year? How many hours of keening sports commentary would be unleashed, from fans and performatively enraged pundits alike, about not sacrificing for the greater good and the promise of glory. Football is, after all, the country’s real national pastime. And if these gridiron warriors were willing to suck it up and set whatever Facebook-fueled fears they might harbor aside, how many red-blooded Americans could be inspired to follow suit?