Despite Ron Rivera's best efforts, COVID-19 remains a problem for the Washington Football Team. So he's trying a different tactic.
Washington saw two more players — All-Pro guard Brandon Scherff and reserve tackle David Sharpe — hit the reserve/COVID-19 list on Saturday, bringing the team's total of players sidelined by the virus to six. The news saw Rivera issuing a warning to his team that such an outbreak when games are being played could cost Washington in two games.
Here's how he explained it, when asked about the potential football impact of COVID-19 infections:
"That's part of the problem, to be very honest. That's going to make things difficult, and that's the thing we have to be aware of. It'll make it difficult in terms of everybody working together, difficult on us as coaches with our evaluations and scouts, and it'll be difficult on the player because having time off, not really getting an opportunity to work and develop and grow and learning. That's the downfall and that's the downside.
"I mentioned it to our guys, I said 'Here's what what-if scenario. What if this had been game day Sunday for the opener?' Even though it's only contact tracing for some of them, that's five days. So if this is the opener, imagine this: Open against [the Chargers], Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, playing Thursday night against the Giants. Those guys would not be eligible. So, to me it brings the reality of what the rules are, and I hope it helps. But again, these young men have to make their decisions."
Washington is scheduled to begin its season on Sept. 12 against the Los Angeles Chargers, with a "Thursday Night Football" game against the New York Giants on deck for Week 2. Under the NFL's new COVID-19 protocols, an unvaccinated player exposed to an infected person will be subject to a five-day quarantine.
The NFL has taken a harder stance against unvaccinated players than any other league, telling teams earlier this month that a COVID-19 outbreak caused by unvaccinated players would mean a potential forfeit and financial responsibility for the team in question if a game cannot be rescheduled. Players on both teams would also potentially not be paid for the game.
Rivera has repeatedly stressed that vaccination is a "personal decision" for players, but that doesn't mean he hasn't tried to give them a push.
Ron Rivera is doing his best
Per ESPN, Washington ranks next to last in the NFL in COVID-19 vaccination at just over 70 percent of players with at least one shot. That lags well behind the league-wide rate of 89.4 percent, with 22 clubs at over 90 percent.
Rivera has more than done his part in the apparently Herculean labor of trying to convince a team full of adult NFL players to get vaccinated. In June, he went as far as bringing in a key Moderna vaccine researcher to address players' concerns with the vaccines.
That didn't assuage some players' concerns, and even led to a public rebuke from pass-rusher Montez Sweat, who apparently needed more facts than the ones that a Harvard viral immunologist can provide:
“I’m not a fan of it at all,” Sweat said during a post-practice Zoom conference. “I won’t get vaccinated until I get more facts.”
The one thing Sweat said could convince him to get the vaccine: getting COVID-19.
“I haven’t caught COVID yet,” Sweat said, “so I don’t see me treating COVID until I actually get COVID.”
Earlier this week, Rivera tried appealing to some of his players' humanity by confirming that he remains immune-deficient after spending all of last season battling skin cancer. He told reporters he was "beyond frustrated" with his team's low vaccination rate.
Even that argument drew criticism from a former NFL player. T.J. Ward, a two-time Pro Bowl safety, wrote "Don’t blame the players for your life long health decisions" in a since-deleted tweet, reprehensibly implying that Rivera's cancer was his own fault. Ward has since walked that reaction back.
Ward isn't on Rivera's team, but dozens of his players are still apparently unmoved by his efforts. He said he's tried to convince them in personal talks, but some may just never change their stance:
"It's a matter of these guys being educated and understanding, because it's fair when you sit down and talk to these guys and listen to them and listen to their true concerns. Some guys just don't know, and I've gotten a sense that there are a few guys who are dug in so hard, so much, that they're not going to back down. That's the part to me that's concerning because I care about all these guys. I really do, and their families. You do worry that somebody might catch it and go home and pass it on to a family member."
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