Panthers QB Sam Darnold's vaccine hesitancy shows NFL players are 'microcosm of our country'

AP Photo/Nell Redmond

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold triggered a strong social media reaction on Wednesday by uttering five words.

"I haven't been vaccinated yet.''

The third pick of the 2018 draft, who was, of course, referring to the COVID-19 vaccine, had everything from his leadership to his intelligence to his ability to make decisions questioned.

However, Darnold's not the lone NFL player who has made the choice not to be vaccinated in what the league and NFL Players Association has made clear is a personal decision.

Despite being encouraged by the NFLPA to get vaccinated and take advantage of being able to interact with teammates in meetings, not having to take daily COVID tests and traveling without restrictions if fully vaccinated, many players have taken Darnold's position.

Unvaccinated players remain subject to daily testing, wearing a mask at team facilities, social distancing and will have to quarantine after exposure to coronavirus. They also won't be able to interact with family and friends when the team is on the road and cannot eat in the cafeteria at the team facility. An updated list of protocols was released Wednesday.

The NFLPA doesn't have exact numbers of unvaccinated players, but they aren't at the desired 85% threshold. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith reminded in a recent Zoom session that the players aren't any different than the rest of the United States. According to government data, 43.3% of Americans are fully vaccinated and 52% have gotten at least one shot.

"We're a microcosm of our country,'' Smith said.

Longtime NFL agent David Canter agreed.

"Society is hesitant,'' he said, noting it's been difficult to get his clients to take the shot. "Not just players.''

One agent estimated 60% of his clients are fully vaccinated. Washington Football Team coach Ron Rivera estimated 50% of his players have gotten the shot, although a few more plan to after he brought in an infectious disease professor from Harvard to educate players and encourage them to get vaccinated.

"It's everyone's choice whether they want to get vaccinated or not," Darnold said. "For me, I'm staying by myself right now. I don't have a family or anything like that. There's a ton of different things that go into it. I'm gonna evaluate that on my own and make the best decision that I feel like is the best for myself.''

Zach Binney, an epidemiology professor at Oxford College of Emory University, said Darnold's reaction is common among athletes and people outside of sports.

"The idea that I need more information, or I want to look at the statistics, or I have questions that need answered,'' Binney said. "It's nice to get more specifics on that, because sometimes these are legitimate questions that people have that actually have answers.

"Now, sometimes it's possible people say [they are evaluating] to avoid a conversation or avoid saying something they don't want to say in public, that there is something else driving this.''

Trusting the science

Thom Mayer, the NFLPA's chief medical advisor, has fielded hundreds of calls from players looking for answers on the vaccine. Many of the calls include the player's spouse.

Some questions include: Did the government move too fast to allow use of the vaccine that is not fully approved by the FDA? Why is this an Emergency Use Authorization instead of the normal approval process? What is the connection of heart inflammation to the mRNA vaccine? Is this medical experimentation? How long do the antibodies last?

"They are serious, thoughtful questions that deserve serious and thoughtful answers,'' Mayer said. "It's not a fearmongering thing. It's really and truly honest questions about things that are out there that they're worried about.''

The NFLPA has done its best to keep players informed about the vaccine through messaging on the website, clinics and personal conversations.

"So we know the right people are being informed about this to make the decision,'' Mayer said. "I'll say what our players say. They're grown-ass men. You give them grown-ass facts and they'll make a grown-ass decision.

"What you're probably hearing is not that they don't have the information, but that it's a difficult decision for people to make.''

For some, it simply comes down to trusting the science and other information gathered.

"I don't think the country is in a place right now where we lack the information,'' Smith said. "The country is in a place where people are asking whether they trust the information and whether the information is sufficient to deal with any other issue they may have.''

Back to normal

Bruce Arians, who coaches the Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers, gave a succinct message to his players.

"If you want to get back to normal, get vaccinated,'' he said.

The team held a vaccine drive for players and families at the stadium with the goal to get 85% of the players vaccinated.

But while the NFL has mandated coaches and other staff members get vaccinated, not all coaches are pushing that message to players as strongly as Arians.

"It's their decision,'' Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. "I don't tell anybody what to do. As with any topic in life, I would say do your research, do it from the right sources, talk to your doctor, talk to our doctor.

"And then make sure our guys know the difference between being vaccinated and non-vaccinated. There are differences in the protocol. There will be differences in training camp.''

Sensitive subject

Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane received backlash from the NFLPA last month after saying he would release players that refused to get vaccinated if it hindered a return to normalcy.

He didn't think it was an outlandish comment, but the response helped him understand the subject is sensitive.

"Seems like more of an issue of, 'I don't want to be told what to do,'" Beane said.

Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley got into a Twitter spat over the topic. He wrote: "I don't have a problem with anybody getting the vaccine. That is YOUR choice. My problem is everyone is ridiculing and bullying people on here into getting one or thinking the same way about it. It's becoming that way with any issue. This is not ok.''

Darnold got a taste of the backlash last week.

Binney said there's a culture component that goes into the disparity in the number of players that have been vaccinated from team to team.

"You have one or two leaders in the locker room who are either saying, 'Hey, guys, let's come together on this, let's do this, let's protect each other and be safe,' or you have a couple of leaders who say, 'Well, now, I still have questions and concerns,'" he said.

"That definitely affects the broader locker room culture at different rates.''

Smith urged any player who has questions about the vaccine to call him or anybody in the NFLPA.

"The only thing that we can do is make sure that all of our players have all the information,'' he said. "There really shouldn't be any excuse for not having the answers to questions that you have.''