The National Football League has mandated full vaccinations for anyone entering a game-day locker room in the presence of players this season and capped locker room attendance for non-player personnel at 50 vaccinated individuals, effective immediately.
According to a league-wide memo obtained by The Associated Press, personnel covered by the policy includes coaches, athletic trainers, equipment staffers, one general manager, one team security representative, three club communications media workers and one clubhouse support staffer.
One team COVID-19 protocol coordinator also may access the locker room for managing Kinexon devices (which are used for contact tracing, social distancing and a person's whereabouts) or to perform disinfection required by league protocols without counting against the maximum of 50, as reported by AP pro football writer Barry Wilner. All such individuals must be fully vaccinated.
“Non-club-affiliated media will not be permitted in the locker room,” said the memo circulated among the league's 32 teams Wednesday. “In the event a player needs medical attention in the locker room or if a club elects to conduct drug and steroid specimen collections on game day, a medical professional or specimen collector ... may access the players’ locker room without being included in the maximum of 50 individuals with locker room access, provided that they are fully vaccinated.”
Meanwhile, the NFL has not required players to be vaccinated, though it has reported that more than 90 percent of them are.
Media restrictions brought the most immediate pushback on the NFL's policy. Per the AP's Wilner, while the NFL has returned to in-person media availabilities, none will be in locker rooms. There can be news conferences and small group availabilities, as long as physical distancing is maintained, and for game days there will be postgame news conferences with coaches and players. Teams that have a room where they are comfortable bringing a player for physically distanced interviews with media have that option. Zoom calls with media no longer are mandatory.
Lindsay Jones of The Athletic, president of the Pro Football Writers of America, gave a lengthy response to the restrictions.
“The decision from the NFL and NFL Players Association to close the locker rooms to independent media in 2021 is disappointing, though not unexpected, given the current state of COVID-19 across the country,” Jones said. "However, the PFWA believes there are ways to safely reopen the locker room to reporters this season, and regaining locker room access in the near future remains our highest priority.
"Our members have overwhelmingly agreed to adhere to strict COVID-19 protocols, including mandatory vaccinations in order to have in-person interviews with players and team personnel, and to be granted access to press boxes, wearing masks indoors and submitting to regular COVID testing, and we will continue to do so. The relationships built during locker room access and the reporting that comes from this time, both after games and during the practice week, is the heart of NFL beat coverage. It allows for fans to have a deeper understanding of the players beyond their performances on the field, and a better grasp of what is happening on the field; coverage of the NFL will suffer without it.
“A return to in-person press conferences this summer during training camp was a positive development, but not the long-term solution. We look forward to continuing our conversations with teams, league and NFLPA officials to come up with ways to allow independent media to do our jobs of delivering the type of coverage NFL fans deserve.”
As Wilner points out, the NFL is no different than other major professional sports leagues that have limited locker room access. The NBA, WNBA, NHL and MLB have all closed their locker rooms to media during the pandemic.