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NFL Says Forfeits Possible In Outbreaks Among Unvaccinated

By Zachary Zagger · July 22, 2021, 8:27 PM EDT

NFL teams with COVID-19 outbreaks stemming from unvaccinated players that cause games to be canceled may have to forfeit those games, and players on both teams will lose their game checks, the league told teams Thursday as it seeks to start the new season amid rising infection rates in parts of the country. 

Commissioner Roger Goodell informed teams of the new COVID-19 policies in a memorandum Thursday. The league has not mandated that players be vaccinated.

If a game is canceled because of an "outbreak among nonvaccinated players on one of the competing teams," and cannot be rescheduled within the 18-week regular-season schedule, the team "with the outbreak will forfeit the contest" and players on both teams will not be paid for that game, the memo said. The team with the outbreak will also "be responsible for all additional expenses incurred by the opposing team," the memo said.

The league will not add a 19th week to the season to accommodate rescheduled games, and a decision to reschedule "will be dependent on health and safety reasons at the recommendation of medical experts as well as considerations of stadium availability, schedule integrity, fan convenience and other appropriate matters," the memo said.

Protocols from 2020 will remain in place for unvaccinated players, requiring unvaccinated players who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate for 10 days and return to play only if asymptomatic, the memo said. Unvaccinated players must also quarantine for five days if they come in close contact with an infected individual.

Vaccinated players will be able to return to duty after two negative tests at least 24 hours apart, and will not have to quarantine if they have a close contact with an infected individual, the memo said.

"These operating principles are designed to allow us to play a full season in a safe and responsible way and address possible competitive or financial issues fairly," Goodell wrote in the memo. "While there is no question that health conditions have improved from last year, we cannot be complacent or simply assume that we will be able to play without interruption — either due to COVID outbreaks among our clubs or outbreaks that occur within the larger community."

The policies come as the NFL is trying to push forward with the new season as COVID-19 cases have been surging in parts of the country, driven by the so-called Delta variant. As of Thursday, just over 56% of Americans had at least one dose of a vaccine, while less than half the country is fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sports labor experts told Law360 earlier this year that employers may legally be able to mandate vaccinations for nonunionized employees, but for unionized employees — like NFL players — it is most likely a mandatory subject of bargaining. This means that a mandatory vaccination policy is likely to require buy-in from the players association. 

According to Thursday's NFL memo, the high-level staff for nearly all the teams are 100% vaccinated, while 75% of players "are in the process of being vaccinated." More than half the teams are greater than 80% vaccinated, the memo said.

"We know that vaccines are safe and effective and are the best step anyone can take to be safe from the coronavirus" that causes COVID-19, Goodell wrote in the memo. "The vaccines continue to provide strong immunity against variants of the coronavirus, including the Delta variant. Even with recent increases, new cases remain far below the peak levels of earlier this year."

Still, some players have resisted getting vaccinated, like Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley, who posted a statement to Twitter on Tuesday that said: "If [you're] scared of me then steer clear, or get vaccinated. Point. Blank. Period. I may die of covid, but I'd rather die actually living."

--Editing by Regan Estes.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.