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Canadian Football League Not Messing Around With COVID-19 Outbreaks And Player Vaccination

James Murphy
by in CFL on
  • The Canadian Football League (CFL) is taking a very strict stance concerning COVID-19 outbreaks and vaccinations among teams.
  • The CFL has expressed their goal of zero COVID cancellations during the 2021 season.
  • The league has not minced words about their desire to have all players, coaches and team staff members vaccinated.

In late July, the National Football League (NFL) circulated a memo outlining policies relative to COVID-19 outbreaks among teams during the 2021 season. Simply put, the league has no patience at all for outbreaks among unvaccinated players. The NFL emphasized their plan to play the 272 game season in 18 weeks. In the event of a COVID-19 outbreak among unvaccinated players that cannot be rescheduled within that 18 week window the team suffering the outbreak will forfeit and be credited with a loss. In the event that a team must forfeit a game for this reason they will cover financial losses and be subject to potential discipline from the Commissioner’s office. The policy is an effort to get as many players vaccinated as possible using the risk of a forfeit loss and financial penalty as a motivating factor.

North of the border, the Canadian Football League (CFL) is getting ready to start their 2021 season. The CFL was forced to cancel the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic meaning that when the game between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Winnipeg Blue Bombers kicks off this Thursday it will have been over 18 months with no Canadian Football. The last CFL game to be played was the 107th Grey Cup on November 24, 2019. The cancelled season was a massive financial blow to the CFL–unlike their NFL counterparts the majority of team revenues come from ticket sales and other game day revenue. That the league was able to remain solvent and return with the nine franchises that finished the 2019 season is a minor miracle.

That experience is likely why the CFL isn’t going to tolerate any behavior relative to the health and safety of players and teams that threatens the viability of the league. The league has articulated that their goal is to have zero COVID-19 caused cancellations and they’ve put a policy in place to help facilitate that. This policy is actually tougher than the one established by the NFL pertaining to unvaccinated players. Ultimately, the hope is that the strict policy will motivate players to get vaccinated as CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie explains:

“Our goal is to ensure we have zero game cancellations due to issues caused by an outbreak of COVID-19 within our football operations.”

“While this policy spells out what will happen if cancellations do occur, its main purpose is to encourage all of our players to get fully vaccinated in order to minimize the risk to our season and, most importantly, their health and safety.”

Unlike the NFL, the CFL policy makes no distinction between COVID-19 outbreaks caused by vaccinated or unvaccinated players. If a game cannot be played as scheduled because of COVID-19 issues, the CFL will make an effort to reschedule it. If it can’t be rescheduled it’ll be a loss for one or both teams under these guidelines:

• If one club is suffering from the COVID-19 issues, that club will forfeit the game and be assigned a loss while its opponent will be credited with a win by a score of 1-0.

• If both clubs are suffering from the COVID-19 issues, then both clubs will forfeit the game and be assigned a loss.

This is a good motivation for players and teams to do their part to prevent an outbreak and hopefully get vaccinated. An even more compelling motivation for vaccination is targeted at the CFL players’ wallets:

In both of these circumstances, if a team can prove that 85 per cent of its players under contract have been vaccinated, at least once and preferably fully, its players will receive their salary for the cancelled game. If the team falls below that 85 per cent threshold, the entire team will not receive its salary.

The CFL Commissioner has the authority to cancel game at his discretion following consultation with the CFL’s Chief Medical Officers and the CFLPA. There are also some specific conditions that will trigger a cancellation:

• Its playing is precluded by a decision by a government health authority.

• A team does not have 36 players to dress for the game.

• A team does not have an individual available to coach the offence and another individual to coach the defence.

• A team does not have a certified athletic therapist and sports medicine physician available for the game.

In the NFL, tests have been administered to 2,528 players and 4,549 staff members since the start of training camp on July 25, and 65 positive cases have arisen. Of those cases, 32 positives are among vaccinated individuals. The NFL league has indicated that 90% of its players had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot. The CFL hasn’t quite reached that level of league-wide vaccine compliance though none of the teams have vaccine percentages as low as the ‘laggards’ in the NFL:

As of last Friday’s league-wide roster cutdown, 79 per cent of CFL players are fully or partially vaccinated. Three CFL teams have more than 85 per cent of their players vaccinated. The other six teams have vaccination rates ranging from 67 per cent to 81 per cent.

The CFL has also done their share of testing and to date there has been *zero* positive tests:

The league also announced today its latest COVID-19 testing results: From July 15 to the end of training camp last Friday, the league administered approximately 6,000 COVID-19 tests to its Tier 1 personnel, which included players, coaches and support staff. Those tests resulted in zero individuals returning a positive test result for COVID-19.

It isn’t possible to do a direct comparison between the two leagues. There are 9 CFL teams compared to 32 NFL teams. The CFL has smaller rosters, fewer coaches and significantly fewer support personnel. This means the NFL’s efforts to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks are an order of magnitude tougher than their Canadian counterparts. Even so, the CFL’s results are commendable.

The relative seriousness of the US and Canada tackling the pandemic also plays a part–particularly as it relates to vaccination. The United States got off to a good start with their vaccination campaign while Canada’s early efforts stalled due to supply and logistical problems. Those problems have been dealt with and since then the Canadian vaccination rate has left the US in the dust. As of August 3, the United States has fully vaccinated 49% of their eligible population (generally adults 18 and over) with another 8.2% partially vaccinated for a total of 57.2%. Canada has now fully vaccinated 60% of their population with another 12% partially vaccinated for a total of 72%. These trend lines should continue as the current per capita vaccination rate in Canada is nearly triple that of the United States.

For whatever reason, Canada just doesn’t have the same level of ‘anti-vax’ sentiment. In the US, it’s become a popular political pose particularly among conservative Republican Donald Trump voters, far left liberals and inner city minority communities. Much of the ‘fear’ among these groups have been fueled by dubious information on social media. The US has many more tinfoil hat wearing types that *still* think the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax despite more than 36 million cases and 600,000 deaths in the country. That’s one of the primary reasons that the US states of Louisiana, Florida and Arkansas have infection rates that would put them in the top five of all *countries* in the world. The US has seen a small uptick in vaccination rates over the past week as the Delta variant has rampaged across the country but that’s one of the few pieces of good news found in the American COVID-19 mess.

The situation in Canada is significantly better than in the United States. Canada’s 7 day moving average of new infection per 100,000 people is 1.6 (#152 worldwide) while the US rate is 31.6 (#28 worldwide). Even though things are heading in the right direction CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie reiterated the importance of staying vigilant as he reported the generally positive COVID-19 news from the league:

“While these results are encouraging, we simply cannot be lulled into a very false sense of security, not when Delta and other variants are making their way through parts of Canada, and they have been attacking unvaccinated people in the U.S. and Canada.”

“The most important thing everyone can do to protect themselves, and the most important thing our players can do to protect themselves and our season, is to get vaccinated.”

The CFL kicks off its 2021 season Thursday at 8:30 pm EDT/5:30 PDT when the defending champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in a rematch of the 107th Grey Cup.

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