The NFL has mandated that only fully vaccinated personnel, with a maximum of 50 people, will have access to locker rooms while players are present on game days.
In a memo sent to the 32 teams and obtained by The Associated Press, the policy becomes effective immediately. The personnel covered by the policy includes coaches, athletic trainers, equipment staffers, one general manager, one team security representative, three club communications media workers and one clubhouse support staffer.
Players are not required to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but the NFL has reported that more than 90% of them are.
"Non-club-affiliated media will not be permitted in the locker room," said the memo dated Wednesday. "In the event a player needs medical attention in the locker room or if a club elects to conduct drug and steroid specimen collections on game day, a medical professional or specimen collector ... may access the players' locker room without being included in the maximum of 50 individuals with locker room access, provided that they are fully vaccinated."
One team COVID-19 protocol coordinator also may access the locker room for managing Kinexon devices (which are used for contact tracing, social distancing and a person's whereabouts) or to perform disinfection required by league protocols without counting against the maximum of 50. All such individuals must be fully vaccinated.
Teams conclude the three-game preseason this weekend. The regular season begins Sept. 9 with Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay hosting Dallas. The first full slate of games is Sept. 12.
While the NFL has returned to in-person media availability, none will be in locker rooms. There are news conferences and small group availabilities as long as physical distancing is maintained, and for game days there will be postgame news conferences with coaches and players. Teams that have a room where they are comfortable bringing a player for physically distanced interviews with media have that option. Zoom calls with media no longer are mandatory.
"The decision from the NFL and NFL Players Association to close the locker rooms to independent media in 2021 is disappointing, though not unexpected, given the current state of COVID-19 across the country," said Lindsay Jones of The Athletic, president of the Pro Football Writers of America. "However, the PFWA believes there are ways to safely reopen the locker room to reporters this season, and regaining locker room access in the near future remains our highest priority.
"Our members have overwhelmingly agreed to adhere to strict COVID-19 protocols, including mandatory vaccinations in order to have in-person interviews with players and team personnel, and to be granted access to press boxes, wearing masks indoors and submitting to regular COVID testing, and we will continue to do so. The relationships built during locker room access and the reporting that comes from this time, both after games and during the practice week, is the heart of NFL beat coverage. It allows for fans to have a deeper understanding of the players beyond their performances on the field, and a better grasp of what is happening on the field; coverage of the NFL will suffer without it.
"A return to in-person press conferences this summer during training camp was a positive development, but not the long-term solution. We look forward to continuing our conversations with teams, league and NFLPA officials to come up with ways to allow independent media to do our jobs of delivering the type of coverage NFL fans deserve."
Most professional sports have not allowed locker room access during the pandemic. Major League Baseball's 2021 season began with video conferencing similar to last year until the league adjusted its policy in June to allow vaccinated journalists on the field pregame to interview players. Most teams continue to host pre- and postgame manager availabilities via video conference, and reporters still are not allowed back into clubhouses.
Neither the NHL nor NBA has allowed locker room access, though the NBA during late rounds of the playoffs offered news conferences for limited vaccinated media. The WNBA recently started allowing in-person interviews at practice after the Olympic break, before and after games. Journalists must be vaccinated and can conduct one-on-one interviews with social distancing. But there is no locker room access.
Only in auto racing, where there are no true clubhouses did media access open wider.
IndyCar, which says all of its drivers are vaccinated, basically has 2019 pre-pandemic access rules for media. It eventually opened the garage this year to all media credentialed. Prerace bullpens, sort of a so-called mixed zone requiring socially distancing, have remained, but drivers come to the media center and hold real access there.
NASCAR, which has only five Cup drivers who publicly have said they are vaccinated, has pulled back on media access. At the end of May, it reopened the garage to vaccinated media and Zoom interviews ended, but only the race winner came to the media center. The next four finishers were available postrace on pit road in a bullpen.
The rolled-back protocols now include no more garage access not only to media but the drivers, too. The prerace bullpen was moved outside for top 20 drivers, and media are required to be masked, with a buffer between drivers and media. Race winners are now back to Zoom interviews, with the next four finishers available on pit road.
The PGA Tour began with only Zoom interviews before tournaments and a socially distanced mixed zone for players on request during the tournament. Access gradually increased to players off to the side, socially distanced, and practice areas opened in July. The locker room remains closed, and players don't come to the media center for interviews.