NFL offers hope in the struggle to overcome vaccine hesitancy

By Dennis Archambault

Hope in the struggle against vaccine hesitancy is coming from an unlikely place – the National Football League. The league’s strategy in using incentives and “coaching” to move behavior is setting an example for employers and governmental bodies who are challenged with moving the nation closer to genuine herd immunity to lessen the impact of the delta variation of COVID-19.

It certainly is a smart business practice to do everything you can to keep your players healthy. As Detroit Free Press sports columnist Shawn Windsor writes,  “The NFL understands what’s at stake: for its bottom line, nothing draws ratings like full stadiums and an uninterrupted schedule of games; for its place in the culture, no league draws a wider socio-political swath of fan.”

With 90 percent of NFL players vaccinated, it looks like the league has been successful – even with confirmed non-vax players. Detroit Lions offensive tackle, Taylor Decker this spring said he wouldn’t become vaccinated. But he changed his mind. Yes, it’s possible that anyone can change their mind about vaccinations. According to Windsor, Decker wouldn’t say why he changed his mind, but the fact that he told Windsor, on the record, is testimony that people can get on the right side of this challenge.

Coaching plays a role on and off the field. Ron Rivera, coach of the Washington football team, says “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 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.”

You have to wonder what questions remain unanswered? What can anyone say to change minds at this point? The answers may be in how we engage one another, and how we structure social incentives. Rivera has shown that his coaching has begun to increase Washington’s vaccination rate, one of the lowest among NFL teams.

The NFL is offering society an alternative to mandates: persuasion. Edward Bernays, viewed by many as creating modern public relations, coined the phrase, “engineering consent.” We have learned in the past year that there is a limit to the authority of government in a democracy – when the opposition party chooses not to be particularly loyal and when the population is particularly skittish. At some point, persuasion plays a role.

The NFL made it “inconvenient” for a player to avoid vaccinations, Windsor writes, “requiring masking, social distancing, more testing. If an unvaccinated player tests positive, they may end up forfeiting a game. That gets into the realm of teamwork. When someone is ill or injured on a sports team, particularly a critical player, it can mean the difference between winning and losing. That is quite a burden for someone unwilling to be vaccinated. It’s more than the lost pay that may result. It’s about teamwork.

“One of the reasons the NFL succeeds like no other American league is because of the tightrope it walks between the two, and because it sells the idea of personal responsibility and sacrifice for the whole.” The NFL rules on vaccination create tension between one’s personal choices and the greater good of the game – a little like society, which often struggles between what is good for an individual and what is best for society.  “Yes, it’s still your choice. Yes, you can play without it.  But, also, yes, you must don a mask and submit to frequent testing, and if you test positive, your “personal” choice might submarine the entire operation for a week … or more.”

If the NFL can find a way to move stubborn athletes through coaching and well-engineered incentives – and reach 90 percent vaccination – maybe there’s hope for the broader American society.

Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health.