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Can NFL Teams Release Unvaccinated Players?

Updated: Aug 11, 2022

BY: Pranay C Malempati

Earlier this week, Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer announced that he and his team had considered COVID-19 vaccination status when cutting players to form the required 53-man roster. This is controversial because the rules, agreed upon between the NFL and NFLPA, currently prohibit the NFL and teams from requiring that players be vaccinated. The NFLPA’s spokesman told Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio that “these comments have led the [NFLPA] to open an investigation.”

The NFLPA can investigate all it wants, but it seems very unlikely that they will be able to bring any type of action, especially legally. According to Brooklyn and NYU sports law professor Jodi Balsam, it would be difficult to investigate what Meyer and the Jags actually considered when they made roster decisions.

“You can investigate anything,” Balsam said, “but it comes to nothing unless there is a basis for staking a legal claim or asserting a legal right as to what your investigation unearths.”

Balsam said the legal claim the NFLPA is likely trying to make is that the agreement they made with the NFL should prohibit consideration of vaccination status in roster cuts. She said one way the NFLPA could investigate is by doing a statistical analysis of the players who were cut and determining if there was a statistical bias based on vaccination status. However, regardless of the type of investigation the NFLPA conducts, it would be difficult to bring a legal claim.

Commissioner Roger Goodell said that if a team cannot play a game due to COVID-related holdouts, the team has to forfeit. That clearly made an impact on the league, as about 75% of players were vaccinated prior to the decision in July, compared to over 90% currently. This potential of forfeiting will allow the Jaguars, and other teams, to invoke the last clause of the NFL’s termination form, which a team has to fill out for every player it cuts from its roster:

NFL teams can say that unvaccinated players are “anticipated to make less of a contribution to the club’s ability to compete on the playing field” because they are more likely to get COVID-19 and therefore be held out of multiple games.

Balsam compared this to a regular illness or non-football injury. If a player is sick, whether it’s COVID or anything else, or gets injured outside of football, the coach retains absolute management discretion regarding the player’s status. If the coach wants to bench the player, or the team wants to cut him, they can do that. Why should it be any different when it comes to vulnerability to COVID?

Urban Meyer did walk back his comments, saying that no player was released based on being unvaccinated. But that doesn’t necessarily mean vaccination status wasn’t a consideration at all, so the NFLPA will still conduct its investigation. No matter what they find, though, it will be difficult for the NFLPA to bring a legal claim and prevent teams from considering vaccination status in the future.

“I’m not sure what the NFLPA thinks they negotiated for,” Balsam said, “and whether the NFL would agree that vulnerability to COVID can be a factor. . . I doubt strongly that the NFL would concede an inch of coaching discretion.”

Pranay can be found on Twitter @pracurry

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