The NFL has added an additional COVID-19 vaccination incentive for players, threatening forfeits and the loss of game checks if an outbreak among unvaccinated players causes an unresolvable disruption in the regular-season schedule.
Commissioner Roger Goodell informed clubs of the new policy Thursday in a memo. The league has encouraged vaccination for players but has not required it, per an agreement with the NFL Players Association.
Instead, the league has set up a series of incentives. As of Thursday, Goodell wrote, more than 75% of NFL players were at least partially vaccinated and more than half of the league's teams have player-vaccination rates above 80%. Sixteen NFL teams have hit a vaccination rate of 85% or higher, a source told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler.
Unvaccinated players will be subject to severe protocols during training camp and the regular season, including daily testing, mask-wearing and travel restrictions. Thursday's memo made it clear that unvaccinated players could, in theory, be responsible for the losses of games and paychecks as well.
The new policy drills down on a scenario that never occurred in 2020, when the NFL postponed five games and moved 10 others to accommodate outbreaks. A forfeit will be called in 2021 if all of the following circumstances occur:
• A game is postponed by requirement of government authorities or medical experts, or at the discretion of the commissioner, because of ongoing health concerns of an outbreak.
• The league can't find a suitable date to reschedule within the 18-week framework of the regular season.
• The original postponement was caused by an outbreak among unvaccinated players of one team.
The NFL was able to reschedule all of the games it postponed in 2020, but it's possible it might not go to the same extremes -- such as playing a game on a Tuesday or Wednesday -- as it did during its first pandemic season.
According to the memo: "Whether to reschedule a postponed game 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."
If the forfeit occurs, players from both teams will lose their game checks. The team that suffered the outbreak would be responsible for any shortfall in the league's revenue-sharing pool and also would be credited with a loss for the purposes of playoff seeding, with the opposing team credited with a win.
According to Caesars William Hill, if a game is forfeited, a wager for standard spread, money line and total wager on that game will be voided.
"These operating principles are designed to allow us to play a full season in a safe and responsible way," Goodell wrote, "and address possible competitive or financial issues fairly. 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. These principles are intended to help inform decisions, recognizing that, as in 2020, we will need to remain flexible and adapt to possibly changing conditions."
According to the memo, if an outbreak among vaccinated players causes the postponement of a game, the league "will attempt to minimize the competitive and economic burden on both participating teams."