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Outbreaks among unvaccinated NFL players could lead to forfeits in 2021

(AP Photo / Rick Osentoski)

As the NFL prepares for its first season in a world with COVID-19 vaccines, the league isn’t holding back with its protocols for the 2021 regular season.

According to the NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, the league informed its 32 teams that “if a game cannot be rescheduled during the 18-week season in 2021 due to a COVID outbreak among unvaccinated players, the team with the outbreak will FORFEIT and be credited with a loss for playoff seeding.”

Pelissero also reported that the team responsible for the canceled game will deal with financial losses and potential discipline from commissioner Roger Goodell.

In the memo, the league said it does not “anticipate adding a ’19th week’ to accommodate games that cannot be rescheduled within the current 18 weeks of the regular season.”

The 2021 regular season will feature a 272-game schedule over the course of 18 weeks, with each of the league’s 32 teams playing a 17-game schedule.

>>RELATED: Positives and negatives of NFL’s new 17-game regular season

As each franchise began their prep for the start of training camp, the memo took the football world by storm.

Some wondered what types of implications the news could have for the league’s vaccinated players, who could lose pay as a result of their unvaccinated teammates.

ESPN analyst Damien Woody pondered if teams would be willing to take the risk on an unvaccinated player that is on the fringe when it comes time for roster cuts in August, asking “Do these players really think these billionaire owners gonna mess with their paper?!”

Former Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith put out his own thoughts on Twitter, explaining that he viewed the memo as more of a warning than an ultimatum.

“Why is everyone tripping over the NFL memo?” Smith wrote. “It doesn’t force you to get vaccinated. It just says if you want to be the reason why things are worse, your team will pay. There is a difference.”

>>RELATED: NFL’s COVID-19 protocols for 2021 training camp and preseason

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs, amid loads of attention on his team due to wide receiver Cole Beasley’s anti-vaccine messaging on social media, simply wrote two words to give his thoughts on the situation.

“[A]ccountability…availability,” Diggs said.

On the other side, big-name players like Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey, and New England Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon all expressed their displeasure with the news.

In a tweet that was quickly deleted, Hopkins wrote that “being put in a position to hurt my team because I don’t want to partake in the vaccine is making me quesiton my future in the @NFL.”

>>RELATED: Reflecting on the first NFL season impacted by COVID-19

Shortly after deleting the tweet, he followed it up with a one-word post saying, “Freedom?”

In a longer thread expressing his views on the situation, Ramsey wrote that the “NFL is pressuring/’influencing’ guys to get the vaccine.”

“They are saying if there is an outbreak, the team will be penalized heavily,” Ramsey said. “Just because my teammate(s) personally decide not to get the vaccine, I won’t think they are a bad teammate.”

Judon, using an expletive, expressed his displeasure with the NFL Players’ Association, but didn’t elaborate on whether the tweet was specifically related to the league’s memo.

“I didn’t say anything about the vaccine,” Judon wrote in response to a reply to his tweet. “I said the NFLPA suck. You don’t know if I’m vaccinated or not. This isn’t that argument.”

As of July 16, 2021, 13 teams had reportedly clocked in above an 85 percent vaccination threshold rate, while two squads remained under 50 percent. Just four days prior, there were seven teams that had reached the 85 percent threshold.

>>RELATED: Every NFL team’s schedule for the 2021 season

According to ESPN’s Kevin Seifert, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins, Carolina Panthers, and Denver Broncos had the highest vaccination rates as of the July 16 date.

Daily routines for training camp and the 2021 preseason vary for vaccinated players and unvaccinated players, with lightened rules for the former and strict protocols for the latter.

Now, teams may be forced to make roster decisions in the coming months related to whether or not their players received the vaccine, and players may have to reevaluate their priorities if they don’t want to deal with the consequences that come with not getting vaccinated.

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