For NFL Players, Leadership and Teamwork Builds COVID-19 Vaccine Confidence
Teamwork has taken on a new meaning in the National Football League (NFL) as players, coaches, and league personnel have worked to protect each other by getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
Vaccination Key to 2021 NFL Season
When COVID-19 vaccines received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, NFL and NFL Players Association (NFLPA) leadership collaborated to adapt their existing COVID-19 protocols to include ways to encourage players, coaches, and personnel to get vaccinated before the 2021 season.
Guidance from public health officials and medical experts made it clear that getting as many players, coaches, personnel, and family members vaccinated as possible was key to keeping the league’s more than 2,000 players healthy and safely completing the 272-game, 18-week regular season. The NFL’s other key COVID-19 protocols include:
- Symptom reporting
- Physical distancing
- Robust contact tracing to isolate high-risk close contacts
To encourage COVID-19 vaccination among players, the NFL provided vaccine education from independent trusted messengers, made vaccines easily accessible, delivered a unified message from league and team leaders, and implemented meaningful motivations.
It’s very important to not only protect yourself but others around you, especially those who are older and the youth. If you haven’t gotten the vaccine, get it not only for you, but for the people around you.
As of October 13, 2021, 94% of NFL players and nearly 100% of NFL personnel are vaccinated.
NFL Provided COVID-19 Education Sessions from Trusted Vaccine Messengers
The NFL’s COVID-19 vaccination education efforts began in early 2021, after COVID-19 vaccines became available.
All players, coaches, and personnel were required to complete COVID-19 education sessions delivered by independent medical experts via recorded videos, video conference presentations, and written handouts.
These sessions addressed:
- Facts and myths
- The history of vaccines
- Vaccine availability
- Vaccine benefits
- Potential side effects
- Frequently asked questions
- NFL’s 2021 COVID-19 protocols
Players are hypervigilant about what they put into their bodies and the potential impact on their performance, which makes understanding what is in the vaccines and how they work critical to them.
We know from our broader player health and safety efforts that education is critical. The same principle applies if we’re asking players to swap out the helmet they’ve worn for years to a safer, better-performing helmet or if we’re encouraging players to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
To continue the vaccine conversation after the education sessions, the NFL enlisted medical experts in players’ local communities to answer COVID-19 vaccine questions and address misinformation, helping them make informed vaccination decisions. This included hosting league-wide and club-specific information sessions with doctors and experts from Historically Black Colleges and Universities’ medical schools. Additional sessions led by club medical staff addressed each NFL club’s Infectious Disease Emergency Response Plan, including the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination.
The NFL observed that clubs with strong vaccine advocacy from leaders in the locker room, who appealed to individuals’ sense of team and community, tended to have the highest team-wide vaccine uptake. The NFL equipped club personnel, including team physicians, athletic trainers, and coaches, with COVID-19 vaccine information. This helped guide informal conversations with players and personnel to continue to learn the facts, have frank discussions, and ask honest questions. The league found these ongoing conversations with those they trust to be a driving factor in overcoming vaccine hesitancy.
It’s about using trusted messengers and making sure everyone feels comfortable asking questions. We supplied clubs with experts in their communities to give scientific backings for the COVID-19 vaccines and to answer players’ questions. It’s not about one video or handout, it is trusted people being open and honest, having numerous conversations and answering questions.
How NFL Made Vaccines Easily Accessible
The league made it easy for players, personnel, and their family members to get vaccinated by bringing the vaccines to each team’s spring training camp through partnerships with CVS pharmacy and local healthcare providers.
Clubs set up onsite vaccination clinics, with some holding designated vaccination days; vaccinations increased when vaccines were readily available at clubs’ facilities. The league also worked with players located outside of their team’s city to coordinate with local pharmacies to get them vaccinated. This flexibility was particularly helpful to vaccinate players who didn’t live in their team’s hometown year-round.
Enacting Strong Protocols to Encourage Vaccination
The NFL and NFLPA collaborated to develop realistic and enforceable COVID-19 protocols, and regularly updated the protocols based on new information from public health officials and medical professionals.
On July 22, 2021, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released the 2021 COVID-Related Operating Principles, which stated that clubs would forfeit any game that had to be canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak among unvaccinated players. This helped motivate players to get vaccinated not only for their own benefit, but for the team’s collective benefit.
Additionally, the NFL-NFLPA COVID-19 Protocols for the 2021 Season detailed strict policies for unvaccinated players, including:
- Daily testing
- Always wearing a mask when inside club facilities
- Maintaining physical distance when indoors
- Travel restrictions during bye weeks (when a team doesn’t play in a game)
- Limits on attending venues and events
- Monetary fines for noncompliance
These policies motivated additional players to get vaccinated.
Adapting to Changing Conditions
Recognizing the unpredictable nature of the virus, the NFL remains committed to adapting its protocols to changing conditions.
For example, the NFL adjusted the vaccination guidelines for unvaccinated players who were previously infected with COVID-19 per strong recommendations by NFLPA medical leadership. Players previously infected with COVID-19 can now get one vaccine dose to be considered fully protected under the league’s protocols, which has resulted in player vaccinations
The NFL’s comprehensive approach to encourage COVID-19 vaccination, alongside strong messaging and a willingness to listen to players and staff, is best practice public health resulting in players continuously saying, ‘yes’ to the shot, and ‘yes’ to protecting themselves and their teammates, which is encouraging.
Delivering Consistent Messages from a Unified Leadership
From the start of the pandemic, leaders across the NFL have been united in delivering consistent and continuous COVID-19 information. This has enabled the league to prevent confusion and limit misinformation, which has been particularly important through the surge in cases due to the Delta variant and increased reporting of breakthrough cases in vaccinated people.
The NFL confronted the issue head-on by acknowledging that “given the prevalence of COVID-19 infection in communities, positive cases among vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals are expected throughout the 2021 season.”
NFL leadership and medical professionals have been transparent from the start that it is possible to get COVID-19 when vaccinated, while stressing that the vaccines are very effective at preventing serious illness or death related to COVID-19.
Supporting Vaccinations Among Fans and the Public
In addition to encouraging vaccination internally, the NFL is committed to supporting efforts to promote COVID-19 vaccinations among its fans and the general public.
- All NFL stadiums have been made available to state health officials as vaccination sites, administering more than three million vaccines at 21 NFL stadiums.
- The league and its clubs are also offering vaccine incentives, such as 50 free Super Bowl LVI tickets (in February 2022) to fans who share their reason for getting vaccinated.
- The NFL is using its platform to amplify messages promoting COVID-19 vaccination, including in a Public Service Announcement (PSA) with the Ad Council and the NFL Alumni Health’s partnership with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a national campaign to address COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.
The NFL’s COVID-19 vaccination strategy is comprehensive and inclusive; it is rooted in teamwork and strong leadership. As other sports leagues and organizations develop and adjust their vaccination policies, they can learn from the NFL’s strategy to overcome vaccine hesitancy by providing ongoing education from trusted messengers, creating meaningful motivations, and adapting to changing circumstances.
What are you, your health department, or your organization doing to support COVID-19 vaccination in your community? Share your story with firstname.lastname@example.org and you could see it on our COVID-19 Vaccine Community Features page.