Carolina Panthers Christian McCaffrey and Sam Darnold both declined to say whether they have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine yet Wednesday, and they also wouldn’t say if they ever planned to get it.
I’m not mad at them for dodging those questions.
I’m just disappointed.
McCaffrey is Carolina’s most talented player and the face of the franchise. Darnold is the team’s new quarterback. They have immense clout. In their own locker room, they could be leaders on the thorny vaccine issue. If they told teammates they were getting vaccinated and believed it would be to most players’ best interests to follow suit, you can bet that would move the needle on Panther player vaccine hesitancy.
Instead, they are sitting this one out. Darnold, after saying last week that he hadn’t gotten the vaccine yet, addressed the issue again Wednesday in a Zoom call with reporters by saying: “I’m just going to keep that personal.”
When I asked McCaffrey if he had been vaccinated yet in another group interview, he said: “I don’t want to comment on that.”
That’s the players’ right, and it’s also their personal choice as to whether to get the vaccine.
The Panthers are encouraging their players to get the vaccine, though, because to reach a certain threshold (likely 85%) would lead to a better chance at winning games, coach Matt Rhule believes.
“It’s clearly going to be a competitive advantage to have teams that are more vaccinated than less vaccinated,” Rhule said Wednesday. “I don’t tell anybody, ‘Hey do it.’ I told our team: ‘This is better for our team if we’re vaccinated.’ ”
“We’ve certainly given our players a lot of information,” Rhule said. “We certainly presented it like, ‘Hey, this is what we would like the team to do.’ But at the same time, it’s a personal decision for each guy.”
A list of ‘can’ts’ for non-vaccinated players
Possibly winning a football game is way down the list of reasons as to why anyone should get vaccinated for a disease that has killed nearly 600,000 Americans. But it is true that Darnold, McCaffrey or any other NFL player who chooses not to get vaccinated is going to see their day-to-day lives get a lot more difficult once training camp begins, at least compared to their vaccinated peers.
The NFL issued new COVID-19 protocols to each team Wednesday. Among the differences: Non-vaccinated players will have to be tested every day. They will have to wear masks at club facilities or during team travel (vaccinated players don’t have to).
Non-vaccinated players also can’t use the sauna or the steam room, may not leave the team hotel to eat in restaurants, have to physically distance, can’t visit with their friends and families during road trips, can’t fly on the team’s charter plane on road trips and must quarantine after a high-risk exposure to COVID.
That last one is the most significant competitive disadvantage. Theoretically, a vaccinated player could be exposed to someone with COVID-19 and still play in a game, while a player who hasn’t been vaccinated would need to miss that same game.
The Panthers, for instance, could be without their starting quarterback if Darnold doesn’t get vaccinated and then is exposed to COVID.
McCaffrey also wouldn’t address the NFL’s new guidelines, adding that he hadn’t read them and still declining to say anything about them once they were explained. Darnold did address the guidelines, saying he would factor in the new guidelines into his decision.
“For me, personally, I’m weighing those decisions every day,” Darnold said. “That definitely plays a huge part in it.”
Darnold noted in some occupations that a vaccine allows a person to “go to work.”
“And that’s kind of the same thing that’s happening here,” Darnold said. “So I think just a lot of guys, including myself, we have decisions to make with that.”
Personally, I got the COVID vaccine for many reasons. But one was job-related: I was tired of conducting virtual interviews and knew that I’d have a better shot at doing in-person ones again if I got the shot.
Mahomes got COVID shot
Some high-profile NFL players have publicly made a commitment to getting vaccinated. The most well-known is Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who said in April he was getting vaccinated to make sure his baby daughter would stay safe. Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert said Wednesday he had already been vaccinated. Panthers kicker Joey Slye also has said he got vaccinated.
The Washington Post reported this week that more than half of all NFL players have received at least one vaccine dose. The Post also reported that four teams in particular weren’t doing well with their player-vaccination rates: Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Arizona and the L.A. Chargers.
Rhule said some Panthers players were waiting until the team’s voluntary minicamp ends Thursday before getting vaccinated. Almost all NFL coaches, including Rhule and his entire staff, have already been vaccinated, as the NFL has all but required that to allow coaches to do their jobs effectively. Rhule wouldn’t divulge what percentage of Panther players have been vaccinated, however.
“I’m not saying that,” he said, “but I’ll just tell you we’re not at the number we want to be at right now.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported Wednesday that 64.7% of Americans 18 or over have now had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 54.8% are fully vaccinated.
Getting back to ‘normal’
Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians said last week that if players want to “go back to normal,” they’ll decide to get vaccinated.
Amy Trask, a former NFL executive, wrote on Twitter that the relaxed protocols granted to players who are fully vaccinated may lead to another wave of vaccinations once training camps begin in July.
Wrote Trask: “My prediction: when unvaccinated players get to camp and see that their vaccinated teammates don’t have to wear masks, can eat in the dining area, can hang out in the weight room, etc., many players who weren’t going to get vaccinated will do so — incentives are very compelling.”
As for McCaffrey and Darnold, Panthers fans hoping for more wins this season should root for them to get the shot. More importantly than that, though, I wish the two players would get the shot for their own health and their own family’s health, and then tell their teammates and the world to get it, too.
Darnold and McCaffrey don’t have to do that. But this is a great opportunity for two young players to show leadership in a difficult situation. I wish they’d grab it.