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STOP THE CHARADE: TEAMS SHOULD CUT UNVACCINATED PLAYERS
As the Boston Red Sox know, seasons can be sabotaged by personnel who continue to reject the double jabs, meaning Bill Belichick was right to cut Cam Newton and Urban Meyer was right to speak up
Still the master of cold deception, even without Tom Brady and a seventh ring, Bill Belichick never will admit the obvious: He cut Cam Newton because the former league MVP isn’t vaccinated. Hell, all Hoodie has to do is nod his weathered brow in a northerly direction, toward Fenway Park, where the Red Sox have exhibited how COVID-19 can jeopardize a season.
Deep into Year 2 of a pandemic that continues to pummel the planet, Big Sports remains ravaged by an opponent immune to all game-planning and think-tanking. By now, leagues and players’ unions should be in common-sense sync about the only realistic solution — mandating vaccines for all players and game-related personnel. Yet the foolish anti-vaxxers, showing stubborn strength in small numbers, continue to wreck teams and dreams while threatening lives.
Look no further than Boston, where the Red Sox have become the Red Menace. With a vaccination rate among the lowest in Major League Baseball, they are succumbing to the coronavirus at the worst possible time. They’ve lost four straight, part of a dismal slide since the All-Star break, and only Florida governor and King COVID-iot Ron DeSantis would say this week’s crash isn’t directly related to the virus and Delta variant. When the team’s best everyday player, shortstop Xander Bogaerts, was removed from a game after a positive test Tuesday, it added to an attrition crisis impacting nine other members of the traveling party — leadoff hitter Kike Hernandez, closer Matt Barnes, two other infielders, three other pitchers and two coaches.
How are the Red Sox supposed to beat the American League-leading Tampa Bay Rays, in the case-walloped and hospital-challenged bosom of DeSantis World, with a hodgepodge roster glued together by minor-league callups? More to the point: How can they fend off the New York Yankees and Oakland A’s for one of two AL wild-card berths? The Yankees have had their own COVID outbreaks, meaning the team with the best virus-management survives. Not exactly what they taught us back in Little League.
“It’s gut-wrenching. How else can you react?’’ said Chaim Bloom, Boston’s chief baseball officer. “We try to go to great lengths to keep these sorts of things from happening, and then to see what’s happening now, it’s really hard. This goes beyond baseball. We feel a lot of responsibility to every single person in our traveling party and in our organization. And when our powers to prevent something like this from happening and from continuing to happen only go so far, that’s a bad feeling.”
Um, how long has it been since Rudy Gobert shut down sports? Almost 18 months, right?
“This is our reality,’’ Red Sox manager Alex Cora told reporters. “I’m just tired, to be honest with you. To be thinking about it the whole time and to have to deal with this before a game and during a game — honestly, that’s how I feel right now.”
The conclusion is self-evident. Every sports team on every level — pros, colleges, high schools — should consider a player’s vaccination status when weighing how to navigate seasons. What is the point of a tasking a schedule if unvaccinated athletes, even if they happen to be your best players, are capable of sabotaging the mission? Or, worse, when they literally can make people sick in locker rooms … and beyond? It’s encouraging to see local governments in New York and San Francisco taking charge, reportedly prepared to ban unvaccinated players from NBA home arenas — imagine the ripple effect of a locked-out Kevin Durant or Steph Curry if they were anti-vaxxers. But those are only two cities out of dozens in American sports, creating a potential competitive disadvantage and, I’m sure, the pitter-patter of lawyers.
Of course, Belichick considered COVID when deciding to purge Newton and use a rookie, Mac Jones, as his starting quarterback. Do you really think a crusty, old-school-tethered coach wants the New England Patriots in the hands of a kid QB almost half Brady’s age? Most likely, Belichick is mum because he doesn’t want to anger the NFL Players Association and invite legal ramifications on season’s eve, especially after missing the playoffs last season before a tequila-bombed Brady partied with another Vince Lombardi Trophy in a boat. Instead, he deflects culpability onto the media, despite Newton’s two COVID-related episodes in two seasons, including a protocol “misunderstanding’’ last week that forced him to miss five days. Asked point-blank if he cut Newton because of the virus, Hoodie was adamant.
“No. Look, you guys keep talking about that,’’ he said.
Yet Belichick did express concern about the NFL’s overall COVID picture. “I would just point out that I don't know what the number is, but the number of players, coaches and staff members that have been infected by COVID in this training camp -- who have been vaccinated -- is a pretty high number,’’ he said. “So I wouldn't lose sight of that."
According to the league, 92 percent of players across the 32-franchise landscape have been vaccinated. But that number includes those who’ve received only one jab, which supports Belichick’s point about vaccinated people still being vulnerable to breakthrough infections. Bloom, for instance, said the majority of infected Red Sox personnel have been vaccinated. Yes, as I’ve often pointed out, the NFL and all sports leagues remain at COVID’s mercy. Owners, players, broadcast networks, fans, gamblers — the smart ones get it. The dumb ones keep reading DeSantis’ website and Facebook and believing what they want to believe.
Said Bloom: “I’m a strong proponent of vaccination, and so is our organization. So every person in this organization that isn’t vaccinated pains me. And we know the Delta variant is a different animal. And even against the Delta variant, the data do suggest that vaccination still helps. That’s why we are strong proponents of it. And at the same time, we have a lot of breakthrough infections. There’s no real way to know if it would have been different if we had a higher vaccination rate or not. In this case, I don’t know if that’s knowable, and it doesn’t seem helpful to play the ‘what if?’ game.”
At least Urban Meyer was being honest when he said vaccination status impacted his roster decision-making in Jacksonville. His many critics will call it a rookie coaching mistake, noting how he incurred the NFLPA’s wrath, but everyone in Big Sports should be transparent about a global pandemic that will be dogging us for years. I repeat: years.
“Everyone was considered. That was part of it — production, let's start talking about this, and also is he vaccinated or not?’’ Meyer said. “Can I say that that was a decision maker? It was certainly in consideration."
His bosses stumbled over themselves in a panic, claiming the Jaguars didn’t cut players because they were unvaccinated. The NFLPA said it has opened an investigation, protecting a current agreement that players have the right choose about vaccines. But a team statement did lead with this telling sentence: “Availability is one of the many factors taken into account when making roster decisions.’’
Yeah, availability would be nice if a team is trying to win a game. Screw the players’ unions. It’s time to send all the anti-vaxxers home, where they can make each other sick.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.