ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Vikings have become a microcosm of the United States of America. As has the rest of the NFL.
To be vaccinated, or not to be vaccinated, that is the question. And what a stupid question it is.
After everything the world has gone through over the past year and a half navigating the pandemic, there are still millions of people out there who don’t want to get a simple shot that would make everything just a little bit easier.
A common refrain among skeptics has been: “What about the long-term side effects of the vaccine?” That inquiry, of course, neglects the more pressing question: “What about the long-term effects of the actual virus?”
“I need to do my own research,” those same skeptics might say right before logging onto Facebook to read whatever cockamamie article populates on their feed.
This issue has spilled over into the NFL recently with locker rooms across the league dealing with the same thing as the country at large.
There are hundreds of players who haven’t been vaccinated. All in the name of personal choice. Sure.
As the leader of the Vikings, coach Mike Zimmer is at the epicenter of this disconnect, and because of that, has been extremely vocal about the importance of vaccines.
Maybe because he truly believes in the science. Maybe because he knows vaccines legitimately offer a competitive advantage in the NFL this season. Maybe a little bit of both.
Frankly, why the 65-year-old coach has taken such a hard stance on the importance of vaccines is neither here nor there.
The only thing that matters at the end of the day is this: Mike Zimmer believes in vaccines. His players should too. All of them.
As Zimmer noted, simply getting the vaccine would make life a heck of a lot easier for his players this season. He referenced the challenges of last season with players having to wear masks around TCO Performance Center in Eagan, test daily inside a makeshift trailer set up in the parking lot, and stay confined to the team hotel on the road, among other things on an endless list of league-wide protocols.
“All that stuff, it was just difficult,” Zimmer said. “I just don’t understand. I think we could put this thing to bed if we all do this. But it is what it is.”
That last sentence was essentially Zimmer accepting his fate. He knows that no matter how vocal he is about getting the vaccine, it won’t resonate with some of his players. He’s started to implement contingency plans because of this stark reality.
“There are quite a few guys that are just against it,” Zimmer said. “I’m not going to be able to change their mind. It’s like half the country, I guess.”
As the surging Delta variant continues to spread, it seems only a matter of time before COVID-19 starts to creep into locker rooms throughout the NFL.
This weekend the Vikings got a taste of what that would be like when franchise quarterback Kirk Cousins had to sit out as a high-risk close contact after rookie quarterback Kellen Mond tested positive for the virus. Both players have since been placed on the COVID-19 list, along with reserve quarterback Nate Stanley, who was also a high-risk close contact.
It’s worth noting that if Cousins was vaccinated, he would not be considered a high-risk close contact. That means he would be able to practice with his teammates this week. Instead, he has to quarantine for at least five days, with backup quarterback Jake Browning getting all the reps in practice as the Vikings find themselves suddenly, and seriously, short-handed on quarterbacks.
Heck, just that should be reason enough for Cousins to want to get vaccinated.
It might not matter if he misses a random night practice in August. It will matter if he misses a game in September, October, November or December. And it will especially matter if the Vikings make it to the playoffs and he misses a game in January.
What if that actually happens this season? “I probably won’t be happy we lost the game,” Zimmer said. “And I probably won’t be happy that we could’ve prevented this.”
In that same breath, Zimmer noted some of the stuff his players read about vaccines. He described it as “out there” after taking a deep breath in exasperation.
“I don’t know if it’s misinformation,” Zimmer said. “It’s their belief. Whatever they’ve heard or read or been told. Maybe they don’t believe what (Chief Medical Officer) Dr. (Allen) Sills and the NFL are telling them.”
In a lot of ways, an NFL player deciding not to get vaccinated, and in turn, negatively impacting his team’s chances of success is emblematic of the rest of the country. No matter what vaccinated individuals do moving forward, they will always be negatively impacted by those who remain unvaccinated. To no fault of their own.
As for the Vikings, they will press on with hopes that this doesn’t happen again. Asked if he thinks this will impact how some players view the leadership in the locker room, Zimmer tried to downplay the question initially before letting his true feelings come out.
“Maybe if some leaders miss games because of it and we end up losing games because of it that might,” Zimmer said. “Hopefully we don’t have to find that out.”
If only it were that simple. Oh wait, it is.
Dane Mizutani is a sports reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press