Professional Sports Leagues and Vaccine Mandates

Professional Sports Leagues and Vaccine Mandates

Cora Leeuwenburg

Journal of Regulatory Compliance

Loyola University of Chicago School of Law, JD 2022

Following President Biden’s announcement mandating vaccinations for companies with over one hundred employees, major professional sports leagues may be required to ensure compliance with the mandate. This mandate has the potential to have sweeping implications throughout professional sports, from the athletes, to staff and even spectators. The NFL, NBA, and MLB all have high vaccination rates among their players and the staff that works closely with them, since many teams have already mandated that players and those working in “close proximity” to them be vaccinated. However, their back-office staff are less protected, as those employees have yet to be subjected to strict protocols of the rest of the leagues. Despite these high vaccination rates among athletes and certain staff members, the leagues have been reluctant to institute absolute mandates. But that doesn’t mean that athletes don’t still have a responsibility not only to get vaccinated but also encourage others to do so as well.

League-by-league handling of Covid-19

After a season of upheaval and disruption from players and coaches testing positive and needing to be quarantined, the NFL has publicly expressed an interest in a vaccine requirement for all players, but the Players Association has pushed back against a strict mandate. New protocols require vaccinated players and staff to undergo weekly testing while their unvaccinated teammates must be tested daily as they were last season.

Similarly, MLB does not have a vaccine mandate, but they have provided the incentive of less stringent protocols for teams that have reached the threshold of eighty-five percent of their players and staff being vaccinated. As of now, only seven teams have not reached that threshold.

The NBA took a novel approach of attempting to quarantine their entire league last season. This season, the league has taken a similar position as the other major sports leagues. This is a significant change from the Orlando bubble at the onset of the pandemic and the stringent testing and quarantine protocols from the 2020-21 season. The NBA’s Players Association negotiated a policy that doesn’t require vaccinations, but instead exempts vaccinated players from the rigorous testing that their unvaccinated teammates will be subject to. This proposed testing protocol includes testing unvaccinated players on game days and practice days. The league has also stated that teams will be able to suspend unvaccinated players who are “unable to participate in club activities.”

Both the MLS and NWSL have reported over ninety percent of their players and staff as being vaccinated. Therefore, it is unlikely that Biden’s new mandate would affect their leagues in any substantial way. Similarly, the WNBA announced in late June that ninety-nine percent of their players were vaccinated and that they considered all twelve teams to be fully vaccinated.

What does this mean for pro-sports?

While the teams themselves may not have much to worry about from the new Biden mandate, the stadiums and venues where these sports are played may be a different story. Biden’s mandate encourages venues to require proof of vaccination for entry which could help encourage vaccination among patrons and substantially limit game attendance. Team owners and managers have been outspoken about their support for vaccinations and for encouraging fans and those attending their games to get vaccinated, yet there is less clarity over whether they will put in place any sort of vaccination requirement for attendance.

At Soldier Field, Chicago’s reinstated mask mandate still applies and as such, spectators are required to wear masks in any indoor space at the field and masks are strongly encouraged for unvaccinated fans even in outdoor spaces and open-air concourses. But the players are just happy to be able to be a team again with many of them voicing their relief that the vaccine has allowed them to meet with their teammates in person and share in the comradery that made them love the sport in the first place. But while the players may be enjoying the new and relaxed protocols, spectators around the country many are not afforded the same leniency, especially if stadiums choose to institute their own mitigation strategies such as mask or vaccination mandates for those wishing to attend games in person.

In Kansas City, while there is no vaccination mandate for spectators, masks are still required for anyone in any indoor spaces at the stadium. But the Chief’s president, Mark Donovan hasn’t ruled out the idea of requiring proof of vaccination in order to enter the stadium, instead stating that they would continue crafting stadium policy in accordance with experts. But even Donovan is in agreement that “as an organization, we fully support vaccination. We think it’s the safest way for all of us.”

No matter the effects of Biden’s new mandate, it is crucial at this time for athletes to continue to use their platform and celebrity to encourage fans and the general public alike to get vaccinated, not only so we can go back to attending their games and cheering on our favorite teams, but also to do our part in protecting those around us from the deadly consequences of the COVID-19 virus and its many variants that still continue to take the lives of unvaccinated people nationwide.