The widespread availability of a safe, effective, and free vaccine in early 2021 came as welcome news to the NFL community. After a 2020 season that necessitated stringent protocols, daily testing and robust contact tracing, the 2021 season promised to be far less challenging if NFL players and personnel got vaccinated.
Like society as a whole, the NFL faced varying degrees of vaccine hesitancy among some players and personnel. But, thanks to a program of education, protocol enforcement and consistent messaging from leadership, as of November 30, 94.5% of NFL players are vaccinated, as are nearly 100% of NFL personnel. These figures greatly outpace society as a whole – especially when controlled for demographic considerations.
Given that impressive rate, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a piece analyzing the NFL and NFLPA's tactics to incentivize and encourage vaccination. In publishing the piece, the CDC hopes that the league may serve as a model for other business and organizations as they aim to incentivize, educate and mobilize their workforces to get vaccinated.
The CDC's report focused on the following priorities:
1. Education by Trusted Messengers
In the spring, as soon as vaccines became widely available, NFL players were targeted early and often with reliable information about the vaccines.
As a baseline, all players, coaches and personnel were required to complete COVID-19 education sessions delivered by independent medical experts, presented via recorded videos, video conference presentations and written handouts. In addition, to continue the vaccine conversation after those 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.
The league learned that, in many cases, the messenger was important as the message. Medical experts at the top of their fields – including doctors and experts from Historically Black Colleges and Universities – as well as locker room leaders such as team physicians, athletic trainers, veteran players and coaches all served as important messengers in the league's vaccination efforts. The NFL observed that clubs with strong vaccine advocacy from these locker-room leaders, who appealed to individuals' sense of team and community, tended to have the highest team-wide vaccine uptake.
In parallel, the NFL aimed to educate the wider public about the importance of vaccination. The NFL used its platform to amplify messages promoting COVID-19 vaccination in a Public Service Announcement (PSA) with the Ad Council and the NFL Alumni Health's partnership with the CDC, among other public education efforts.
From the outset, the NFL worked to eliminate logistical barriers to accessing the vaccine. To maximize convenience, the NFL brought the vaccines to each team's spring training camp facilities through partnerships with CVS pharmacy and local healthcare providers. During these onsite vaccination clinics, the NFL also offered shots to the families of players and personnel. The league observed that vaccinations increased when shots were readily available at clubs' facilities.
3. Protocol Incentives
For the 2021 season, the league developed a refreshed sense of protocols, which accounted for the widespread availability of safe and effective vaccines. Notably, these protocols included strict policies for unvaccinated players, including daily testing, mandatory indoor masking, physical distancing and travel restrictions. In addition, the league's 2021 COVID-Related Operating Principles stated that clubs would forfeit any game that had to be canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak among unvaccinated players; this underscored the fact that vaccination would be to a club's collective competitive benefit.
Cognizant of the unpredictable nature of the virus, the NFL and NFLPA remain committed to adapting their protocols to changing conditions in the months ahead.
The CDC's recent report on the NFL's vaccination efforts follows a January 2021 study published in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) which detailed effective elements of the NFL's COVID-19 mitigation strategy that could be broadly applied across society.