NFL coaches address COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in locker rooms: 'Do your research, talk to doctors'

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As NFL coaches confront substantial job roadblocks without COVID-19 vaccinations, players face no such restrictions.

Players gathering for OTAs and minicamps aren't required to be vaccinated. They won't be in the fall when the games start. And many of them reportedly aren't. That's left some coaches compelled to persuade vaccine hesitant players to reconsider their stances — a tricky proposition in a world where misinformation widely informs critical decisions.

Two players who aren't vaccinated spoke out Wednesday about their decisions. Both of them did so as their respective coaches addressed vaccine hesitancy in locker rooms.

Montez Sweat: 'I'm not a fan' of the COVID-19 vaccine

Washington Football Team defensive end Montez Sweat was one of them. He told reporters on Wednesday that he's "not a fan" of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

"I probably won't get vaccinated until I get more facts and that stuff," Sweat said. "I'm not a fan of it at all. ... I haven't caught COVID yet so I don't see me treating COVID until I actually get COVID."

Sweat's comments suggest a misunderstanding of how vaccines work. A vaccine is a preventative measure against contracting COVID-19, not a treatment for somebody already suffering from the disease. It's the exact kind of misperception Rivera hoped to address by asking an expert to speak with his team on Tuesday.

ASHBURN, VA - JUNE 09: Head coach Ron Rivera of the Washington Football Team looks on during mandatory minicamp at Inova Sports Performance Center on June 9, 2021 in Ashburn, Virginia. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Ron Rivera invited a Harvard immunologist to answer players' questions about vaccines. (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Harvard expert answered questions from WFT players

Rivera invited Harvard immunologist Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett via video conference to educate players about vaccines and answer questions. It appears that Corbett's virtual visit didn't fully address Sweat's stated desire to "get more facts."

For Rivera, all he can do is present information to his players so they can make informed decisions. He told reporters on Wednesday that while 100% of the team's coaching staff and on-site employees are vaccinated, the player rate is approaching 50%.

“We’re slowly getting more and more players vaccinated,” Rivera told reporters. “It’s a choice. They’ve got to make a choice. We’re trying to stress the fact that if we can get to herd immunity we’ll really be able to get out there and enjoy things, so hopefully that’ll happen. ...

“We’re trying to gather as much information and allow the players to get as much information so they can make a choice and make a decision. The big thing is we’ve got to be able to facilitate the opportunity for these guys to understand. There’s a lot of messaging that’s out there that they get off of Twitter, and some of it’s good, some of it’s bad.”

Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold looks to pass during NFL football practice in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
Sam Darnold isn't sure about taking a COVID-19 vaccine. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)

Sam Darnold waiting to make vaccine decision

Sweat wasn't alone in speaking about his vaccine hesitancy Wednesday. Newly acquired Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold also announced that he hasn't been vaccinated and doesn't know if he will be. 

"There's a ton of different things that go into it," Darnold told reporters of his decision to hold off on getting vaccinated. "I'm gonna evaluate that on my own and make the best decision that I feel is the best for myself."

Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule, like Rivera, said that he's not in a position to tell his players what decision to make. All he can do is urge them to research responsible information to inform their decisions. The Panthers posted Rhule's comments on their website Wednesday afternoon, shortly after Darnold's admission.

"It's fair to say I don't tell anyone what to do," Rhule said. "It's their personal decision. As with any topic in life, I always say do your research, but do it from the right sources. Talk to doctors, talk to your doctors, talk to our doctors. And obviously, making sure our guys know the difference between being vaccinated and unvaccinated. There are differences in the protocols, and there will be differences in training camp.

"My job is to give people information and let them make decisions. Not much beyond that."

Different rules for players, coaches

For now, coaches and team employees who opt out of vaccines will lose direct access to players, locker rooms and playing fields. The league sent a memo to teams outlining those expectations in April.

"Tier 1 and Tier 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 read. "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 NFL created the tier system last summer as teams prepared for the 2020 season at the onset of the pandemic. Employees in higher tiers have access to more facilities while lower-tier employees are restricted from areas like locker rooms and playing fields. Players aren't subject to the tier system. 

Meanwhile, vaccination rates among NFL players reportedly remain low compared to coaches and team employees league-wide.

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