The NFL and NFL Players Association have a decision to make on whether to encourage COVID-19 booster shots for players (and require them for personnel) as positives tick up in the league, the Omicron variant spreads throughout the country and a Super Bowl taking place in Los Angeles County nears.
While there's no vaccine mandate for NFL players, encouragement via looser protocols has been the carrot the league has offered to get 94.4% of its player population vaccinated as recently as Dec. 2.
League officials were mum this week when I asked around about the potential of a booster "requirement." But as recently as Nov. 18, the league's chief medical doctor said more had to be learned about the booster before the NFL took any further steps integrating the third shot into its protocols.
"We still have a lot to learn about, again, who needs it, when do you need it, what's the optimal timing, what's the optimal combination so that's why you're seeing varying regulation," Dr. Allen Sills said. "We're staying in close contact with public health authorities with our own infectious disease expert advisers and again, looking internally at our data so we can provide the best recommendations. We're certainly not discouraging boosters, we're encouraging everyone to discuss that with their health care providers, whether it's their team's providers or their own physician, and for anyone that qualifies and is interested, we want them to get a booster, but I think we'll be able to make more-informed recommendations as we get a little more of this data and the public health recommendations coalesce."
Pfizer said Wednesday its booster provides "significant" protection against the Omicron variant in a small-sample-size study it conducted.
According to the most recently available data, between Aug. 1 and Nov. 27, 157 players and 275 personnel staffers tested positive for COVID-19 for a total of 432 positives. But from Oct. 31 through Nov. 27 alone, there were a total of 153 positives. So 35% of all NFL positives since August essentially occurred between Halloween and Thanksgiving.
The league hasn't released data since Thanksgiving when it enhanced its protocols to include more testing during the week regardless of vaccine status and mandatory mask-wearing inside the team facilities. And it was around the same time that the league conducted a voluntary antibody study for players and personnel staffers to gather more data about the immunity within the NFL community.
While the NFL waits, other leagues are acting. Reportedly beginning Dec. 17, NBA players who have not received a booster shot will be required to submit to daily testing. Additionally, team personnel wouldn't be able to travel with their team until they received the booster.
The NFL has been a worldwide sports league leader as it relates to the COVID-19 vaccine. Its robust testing has created a partnership with the CDC, and many leagues have taken their cues from the NFL. So it's interesting that the NFL has stood pat so far on anything booster-related.
One potential option, like the NBA, would be for the NFL to require the booster for personnel and recommend it for players while mandating daily testing if they opt against the booster. Whatever the league does, the players union would have to agree to adjusted protocols. More testing is something the union has shown it's agreeable to, and I could see that happening heading into and during the playoffs as an option over getting the booster.
We're already starting to see slight adjustments to league protocols. At next week's league meetings in Texas, the NFL is requiring attendees to be fully vaccinated and to present a negative test from within the previous 24 hours. In previous league events in the post-vaccine world, the league has required attendees to just be fully vaccinated.
The two main issues with requiring the booster now is 1) as Sills notes, there's still more to be learned about its efficacy and 2) potential side effects from the booster could knock a player out for a day or two down the stretch of the regular season or, worse, in the postseason. That's surely something the league is weighing as it attempts to play all its playoff games on time and make it to Super Bowl LVI on Feb. 13.
And with just more than two months from Super Bowl LVI taking place in Inglewood's SoFi Stadium, the league is keeping a close eye on what Los Angeles County is doing with the Omicron variant. The expectation for now is for proof of vaccination to be required and that all functions will require masks.
L.A. County has had some of the more restrictive policies regarding COVID-19 in the past year-plus. Omicron cases are slowly ticking up in the county, and Pasadena's Rose Bowl Parade in a few weeks will likely be a test case for what the league and county do with Super Bowl week a month later.
HBCU careers forum
The NFL held its sixth annual HBCU Careers in Football Forum on Wednesday in a six-hour-long virtual event. More than 170 students from historically black colleges and universities were invited to attend the forum made up of eight sessions with executives from the league office, across NFL teams and in various media entities.
I checked in late Wednesday morning for "The Executive Perspective" session that included Lions GM Brad Holmes, Chiefs EVP of communications Ted Crews, Cardinals chief people officer Shaun Mayo and NFL SVP Jonathan Beane. I heard smart questions from the students on how they can best position themselves while in college to get internships and other opportunities with the league or around the NFL. One student mentioned his dream of creating a sports agency that focuses specifically on representing athletes from HBCUs.
According to the NFL, 14 students have gone on to secure internships or full-time opportunities since the inception of the forum. I thought it was a well-done forum that dispensed great advice to an underrepresented group. Furthermore, I was pleased that executives from teams took time out of their busy Wednesday Week 14 schedules to meet with these students. Those execs understand the importance of their positions and were generous with their time.
In this day and age, content is king. You can't take a day off. Nay, you can't take an hour off. If you're in charge of a brand, you must constantly post content to all your social channels and freshen up your homepage.
For their bye week, the Colts and Eagles have both said they're taking a break.
"13 games down, 4 more to go. Time to rest up, recharge, and get ready for the regular season home stretch," the Eagles said in a statement Wednesday night. "We're using the bye to step away from our social accounts for the weekend. See you all on Monday!"
"As an organization, the Colts are making a commitment to mental health and working to eradicate the stigma surrounding the illness," the Colts said in a statement Thursday morning. "We will be taking time this bye week to disconnect from social media and electronic devices, and spend some time focusing on ourselves and our families. We encourage everyone to take the time to focus on their own mental health by practicing self-care through mindfulness, meditation, exercise, or whatever is needed most to relax and reset."
The Colts also offered several mental-health resources and the opportunity to donate to the Kicking The Stigma Fund.
Turns out, the Atlanta Falcons were the first NFL team — to my knowledge — who had its content team take the bye week off. That took place in Week 6 on the heels of World Mental Health Week.
I think it's a fantastic idea to not only do this within the organization, but also note it publicly as leaders in the community. Our grind never stops culture can't possibly be good for us long term, and noting that it's OK to take a break and reset is something we all could probably use.
Week 14 picks
Falcons at Panthers
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
TV: Fox | Stream: fuboTV (click here)
I was surprised to see the Panthers favored in this game. Maybe it's a pick 'em on a neutral field, but Carolina has looked lifeless since that brief spark Cam Newton provided against the Colt McCoy-led Cardinals a month ago. The Falcons aren't a good or consistent football team, but I think they have the upper hand against a desperate Panthers squad.
The pick: Falcons
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)
The Ravens' inability to score early in games is going to continue costing them. I think the bye was good for Cleveland.
The pick: Browns
Cowboys at Football Team
Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
TV: Fox | Stream: fuboTV (click here)
Ron Rivera has a history of having his teams play their best ball down the stretch (see: 2020 Washington and 2014 Carolina.) Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy put out some unnecessary bulletin board material earlier this week with the guaranteed win. I want to pick against Dallas, but coming off their mini-bye ...
The pick: Cowboys
Rams at Cardinals
Monday, 8:15 p.m. ET
TV: ESPN | Stream: fuboTV (click here)
I really want to pick the Rams here but they just aren't physical enough. The Cardinals are getting healthier and have the better defense.
The pick: Cardinals