NFL is doing what the government isn’t: Convincing people to vaccinate without a mandate

Detroit Free Press

The NFL’s vaccination rate is near 90%. That’s good news.

It’s better news that the most popular sports league in the country achieved this without a strict COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Not that mandates are wrong, they just hit too many the wrong way.

Oh, the league made it more inconvenient for those who shunned the shot, requiring masking, social distancing, more testing. And if an unvaccinated player tests positive and triggers the threshold for forfeiting?

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That’s a helluva burden, made heavier by ruling that forfeited games will result in lost pay. So, yes, peer pressure and potential shame is part of the strategy, too.

If nothing else, the NFL is drawing a blueprint for companies and private organizations weary of instituting vaccine mandates by incentivizing its workers through public and economic pressure. True, the league probably had the runway to join the hundreds — if not thousands — of other businesses who are calling for mandates for their employees: Google, Disney, Wal-Mart all announced vaccine mandates recently.

But in these unsettling and divided times, coaxing remains preferable to bludgeoning. And while some mandates are probably necessary — Michigan and Michigan State announced returning students and staff had to show proof of vaccination — millions of people work for employers who don’t have the stomach for it.

The blueprint isn’t perfect, of course, as not every business has the public platform to pressure its people like the NFL. Last week, for example, Washington head coach, Ron Rivera, told reporters he was “beyond frustrated” with the team’s relatively low vaccination rate.

Going public may not sway the most reluctant players, but it’s increased Washington’s vaccination rate in the last week, along with Rivera’s one-on-one attempts to address misinformation.

“It’s a matter of these guys being educated and understanding, because it’s fair when you sit down and talk to these guys and listen to them and listen to their true concerns,” he said.  “Some guys just don’t know, and I’ve gotten a sense that there are a few who are dug in so hard, so much that they’re not going to back down. That’s the part to me that’s concerning because I care about all these guys.”

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Rivera said he understood it’s a “personal thing.” And it is, in the same way it’s a personal thing to ignore a red light.

Choosing to ignore it, however, happens in public, where there are consequences, and where we try our best to balance personal choice and the public good. The tension in that attempt to balance is — in part — the narrative of our society.

The vaccine is another difficult chapter, fraught with the usual mythologies (go west, find your own path) and the usual disagreements about where the individual ends and community begins.

One of the reasons the NFL succeeds like no other American league is because of the tightrope it walks between the two, and because it sells the idea of personal responsibility and sacrifice for the whole.

On one play a running back is assigned to block a fearsome, oncoming linebacker intent on destroying the quarterback. On the next, he’s carrying the ball, seeking lanes created by teammates, sprinting into daylight, enjoying the spotlight as he rushes down the field.

The NFL’s vaccine rules mimic the push and pull between the self and the team. Yes, it’s still your choice. Yes, you can play without it.

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But, also, yes, you must don a mask and submit to frequent testing, and if you test positive, your “personal” choice might submarine the entire operation for a week … or more.

The approach is slowly working. Consider Detroit Lions offensive tackle, Taylor Decker, who said in the spring he wouldn’t get the vaccine but said last week he changed his mind — and did.

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Decker wouldn’t say why. That’s his choice, too. But he also didn’t have to say he’d changed his mind. Good for him that he did, and good for him for acknowledging it.

The NFL understands what’s at stake: for its bottom line, nothing draws ratings like full stadiums and an uninterrupted schedule of games; for its place in the culture, no league draws a wider socio-political swath of fan.

Sundays in the fall offer the most accessible “gathering” spot for American sports fans. It is not a perfect spot, nor is the league immune to the tensions and ills that mark daily life.

But as a mirror?

It reflects as true an image as we have in sports, for better and for worse. And if the league can get to a 90% vaccination rate without a direct edict? Considering how many players have been reluctant?

Then just about any company can.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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